Last year’s edition of the Mountain Home Lady Bomber basketball team was a strong 3-point shooting squad, and this year’s team might be even stronger.
Mountain Home has only two seniors, but the 2015-16 Lady Bombers have as much depth and talent as they’ve had in several years, according to head coach Dell Leonard.
“We’re going to have four sophomores who will play a lot,” Leonard said. “Any of those four may start. We’re small, but probably quicker than we’ve been in a long time. Offensively, we have a lot of kids who can score.”
The Lady Bombers will have a little more height than they did last season, after the arrival of some tall sophomores and a junior move-in.
“The things Sydney (Blevins) and Breelyn (Arms) brought to the table last year are going to be hard to replace,” Leonard said of his graduated starters. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a big one, you have to figure out how to post guards. That’s something we’re going to do more this year.”
The team’s two seniors are both guards.
“It starts with the character and leadership you get from your seniors,” Leonard said, “and it doesn’t get much better than Cassie Martin and Madison Hershberger. They represent our program the way we expect them to on and off the floor. They both excel in the classroom. When you have leadership like that, everyone else needs to just pay attention and follow. That makes our jobs as coaches a lot easier.”
Team defense is an area for improvement, according to Leonard, noting the scoring ability of every team in the 7A/6A-East.
“They have to understand that we have to be really good defensively,” he said. “They’re smart kids and come to practice every day and see they have some talent, but they still have to get it done. I just see some things on defense that have to get a lot better. We have to be able to get the ball down on the block more. But, the biggest thing is to guard and to finish the possession with a rebound. As small as we are, that’s going to be a challenge.”
Martin returns at a guard spot for her third straight season as a starter.
“She’s got a lot stronger and more physical,” Leonard said. “She needed that because our league is very physical. She’s also grown mentally as far as leadership. She was always quiet and led by example, but now there’s more leadership from her. I think (assistant coach) Lindsey (Leonard) demanded that from her in volleyball, and she really grabbed a hold of it.”
Hershberger is the team’s other senior guard.
“If every kid we had had her attitude and worked as hard as she does, I’m not sure we’d lose a game,” Leonard said of the 5-4 guard. “She didn’t letter the past two years, but she’s a senior who’s earned an opportunity to go out there and show us what she can do. She’ll definitely get some playing time.”
Mountain Home returns several talented juniors who saw considerable playing time last year, including returning starters Vinessa Daniel and Alivia O’Brien, both guards, who are deadly from 3-point range.
“Vinessa played point for us and did a good job as a sophomore and grew up a lot,” Leonard said. “She’s the one kid on our team who went out in the spring and summer and played a lot of basketball. She played for two teams this past summer, and she’s always been a vocal leader. She’s going to have a really good year.
“Alivia has been the quiet kid who goes out and does her job every day,” Leonard added. “She’s one of our better defenders, and toward the end of last year, she started scoring a lot for us. She hasn’t been able to practice the past couple weeks, because she’s been in shin splints. We get her back this week, and that’s going to make a big difference in our practices.”
Micah Hudson, a 5-9 forward, joins the Lady Bombers after leading the Flippin Lady Bobcats in scoring last season.
“She has made an immediate impact,” Leonard said. “She’s asked a lot of questions and gotten better every day. She provides us with some rebounding and someone who can shoot the 3.”
Four of the five juniors are legitimate 3-point threats.
“April Buckley is as good of a shooter as we’ve got,” Leonard said. “She knows by being a great shooter, that gives her an opportunity to play, but like everyone else, she has things she needs to work on.”
Besides Hudson, 5-8 junior Desiree Mitchell is the only non-sophomore post player for Mountain Home.
A strong sophomore class — which won the school’s second straight 6A-East Junior District championship last season — will look to replace the Lady Bombers’ departed seniors.
“I know we’ll start one just about every game, but there may be times where we start several,” Leonard said. “That’s the great thing about competition. Kids are really smart, and if they know there’s no one there to push them, they have to be special people to push hard every day and get better. Now, if someone isn’t doing their job on the court or in the classroom, there’s someone right there to go in for them. Practices are a lot more fun.”
Short, fast guards Riley Walker and Sydnie Zimmer started for the Junior Lady Bombers last season.
“Riley Walker is probably the single reason why I haven’t worried about putting a press offense in,” Leonard said. “She can just get it in and go through everybody. She’s one of the fastest girls in the state. She’s had a great fall and is someone we can put on the ball and cause misery to a ballhandler.
“Sydnie Zimmer has been awesome,” he added. “She guards really well and handles the ball. She’s surprised her teammates with how well she can score.”
The leading scorer for last year’s junior high team was 5-7 guard Hannah Pfeifer.
“Hannah is a gym rat,” Leonard said. “You don’t see those types of kids much anymore, who spend every waking minute in the gym if they can. She will get better as the year goes on.”
The sophomore who will help the most in the post is athletic, 5-foot-10 Maly Tabor.
“The one kid who puts me at awe sometimes as a coach is Maly Tabor,” Leonard said. “She has great hands, and she shoots it well enough to be on the perimeter. She rebounds well and goes to the boards as good as anyone I’ve seen in a long time. She’s an athlete. She reminds me, every day when we practice, with her length and athleticism, I feel like I’m watching (former Lady Bomber) Nicole Bolt.”
Two more sophomores will see time in the post for Mountain Home and one more at guard.
“Kara Smeltzer is defensively as good as anybody we have at the varsity level,” Leonard said. “She provides a lot in practice. Effie Hardy is a true post player, and Madeline Collins can play the 4 or the 5, and so can Desiree Mitchell.”
To know the difference between the talent level of the 7A and 6A teams in Mountain Home’s 7A/6A-East Conference, all one would have to do is look at the Lady Bombers’ league mark last season.
Mountain Home went 5-1 against Class 6A opponents to earn a No. 1 seed for the state tournament, but the Lady Bombers were 0-8 against some of the best competition in the state at the 7A level.
“In our conference, Central has nine Division I players, North Little Rock is right there with them, and Cabot is just behind those two,” Leonard said. “West Memphis is the other 7A school, until they drop down next year. Every night, it’s tough because of their size and athleticism.”
Leonard knows the six games his team plays against 6A schools are the most important contests of the season.
“It’s going to be about the same,” he said. “Jonesboro and Marion can just line up and beat you on athleticism alone. Jonesboro will be a little more skilled and have a couple move-ins who are really good players. Searcy had a good ninth-grade group, and so did Marion. If we can beat those three teams, it’s going to help us as far as seeding goes. The 7A schools, you look at it as ‘try to get better and don’t get anyone hurt.’ You want to beat them — don’t get me wrong — but the way it is, you have to beat Marion, Jonesboro and Searcy.”
In nonconference play, the Lady Bombers play in three strong tournaments, including hosting their annual 1st Arkansas Bail Bonds Tournament at The Hangar.
“The Greene County Tech tournament will be one of the better ones in the state,” Leonard said. “We start with Brookland and play the winner of Tech and somebody else. I know (Fort Smith) Northside is in that tournament and Springdale Har-Ber and West Memphis.”
For local sports updates, follow Neal Denton on Twitter @BBSportsNeal and Like his Facebook page at facebook.com/BBSportsNeal