The old coaching cliché “take it one game at a time,” couldn’t be truer at this point in the high school basketball season, especially for teams looking to return to Columbia for a chance at a state title.
Just consider the Nixa and Hillcrest high school boys basketball teams, which lost in the Class 5 and Class 4 state championship games last year, respectively. With the curtain to rise tonight on the large-school postseason — Classes 3, 2 and 1 began last week — all eyes turn to them.
With or without their recent stars.
Nixa Eagles coach Jay Osborne seems cursed this season with injuries to standout Jalen Norman (knee) and a recent shoulder issue with Jacob Ruder. The Eagles were a clear favorite early in the season. Now they find themselves in a potential dogfight in the District 11 tournament at Branson.
That field also includes Ozark, Kickapoo, Glendale and Branson. The Eagles (21-5) are hoping Norman could return after the district tournament, Osborne said. Ruder returned last Tuesday in a win against Willard.
“Every possession is critical at this point. We have to avoid having empty possessions. If you can avoid that, you have an opportunity to win,” said Osborne, whose team on Thursday plays the winner of tonight’s Ozark-Glendale game. “But we’re not focused on state finals or the final four. We’re focused on our next opponent.”
Fortunately for the Eagles, they also have star Austin Ruder, a Missouri State signee. He has been battling a thumb injury down the stretch, though.
But Osborne conceded this: “There’s no question about it. Losing Jalen did significant damage to the makeup of our team and we’ve had to rediscover ourselves.”
Yet opponents have to be confident, too. Ozark lost to Nixa in the Greenwood Blue and Gold Tournament finals but recently upended their Christian County rivals behind senior Brett Krisik. Another formidable team appears to be Kickapoo, coached by Dick Rippee and featuring senior post player Chris Ward.
Ozark coach Steve Hunter warned his fourth-seeded Tigers can’t look past Glendale, a team with a win earlier this season against second-seeded Branson among its 10 victories.
“You look past anyone this time of year, and you’re done,” Hunter said Saturday.
Host Branson will play Kickapoo in the matchup of second and third seeds. Kickapoo beat visiting Branson 70-61 back on Dec. 11. Branson was one of the area’s best teams after the calendar turned, though, knocking off Nixa, Ozark and Willard to win the Central Ozark Conference Large Division title.
For Hillcrest (20-5), it’s been adapting all season to the 2012 graduation of You Know Who, Dorial Green-Beckham, now playing wide receiver for the University of Missouri. This time last year, he was dominant, too, on the basketball court.
But ask Hillcrest coach John Schaefer about his team’s confidence, and it’s not lacking with this year’s group that includes Roy Hardy, Juwan Johnson, Thomas Whittaker and Austin Petry. Petry brings experience to the team, having already competed at state twice and is the only returning player from the Hornets’ 2010 championship team.
“Obviously we miss (Green-Beckham) a ton but they’ve picked up the slack. We play a different style. We don’t play with a post player now, but we’ve managed to pick up and get right back to where we were,” Schaefer said. “We replaced him with Jonah Hill, who’s a returning starter with good physical presence, but you’ll never have another like Dorial. That’s just one of those special players you can’t replace.”
Hillcrest plays Thursday night in Marshfield against either Salem or Eldon.
“I’m as confident as I’ve ever been. We lost Dorial, but this is a completely different team with a new style of play,” Petry said. “Honestly, Jonah’s someone you need on the team. He grabs offensive rebounds that we would not have if he wasn’t out there. Really, Jonah — it’s hard to replace someone like him. He’s a game-changer and was really the missing piece of the puzzle.”
Hill joined the Hornets in January after initially focusing on his upcoming college football career at Arkansas State.
Yet another storyline this postseason will be the Republic girls, the defending Class 4 state champions.
The starters are seniors Sarah Kreul, Alex Botkin, Alice Heinzler, Kayla Bartelsmeyer and Lindsey Carlson. All five played significant minutes during last season’s run.
Although Republic (24-1) is looking in much the same shape to get back to Columbia, there may be some tough obstacles to face this year that weren’t a factor last season.
One of those is St. Louis powerhouse Incarnate Word, which moved down to Class 4 from Class 5 this year.
“We like the situation we’re in. It’s very convenient to have five seniors starting. They aren’t cocky, they’re confident,” said Republic coach Kris Flood, whose team opens against Reeds Spring on Tuesday in Rogersville. “It’s a different type of situation this time around, and there’s a lot of very good teams who are capable of representing southwest Missouri.”
The Lady Tigers have lost only one game all season, but so has West Plains. Many project they will meet in the final on Friday.