Southwest Missouri high school basketball is back and there are quite a few storylines heading into the 2023-24 season.
The Springfield area has a handful of teams that are capable of making deep postseason runs. There are also a few that made runs last year and have quite a bit of rebuilding to do but we’re confident they can get in a spot to contend by the season’s end.
Here are the 10 biggest questions we have about the area’s basketball scene heading into the area.
How will Kickapoo respond to losing four starters after a state runner-up finish?
It didn’t matter who the Chiefs lost in the offseason going into last year, Kickapoo continued to be one of the premier basketball programs in the state en route to a Class 6 runner-up finish.
The Chiefs will have some roster turnover this year after four starters graduated. The only returning starter is junior Jackson Shorter who is someone to keep an eye on as one who could turn into one of the best players in the area over the next two years.
Mitch McHenry might have had the best coaching performance of anyone in the Ozarks last season and you can bet the Kickapoo pipeline will have a few guys ready to go and perform at a high level this season. That will include the likes of Drew Akins, Hogan Smith, Reese Kimrey, Vincent Mhire and others ready to step into major roles.
Kickapoo isn’t going anywhere. We’ll see how quickly this team will come together and play at a high level.
How does Nixa make up for Kael Combs’ production?
Combs was the most dominant player in the Ozarks last season while leading the Eagles to an undefeated regular season. He averaged 23.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game.
That’s a lot of production that the Eagles will have to fill if they want to have similar success in Brock Blansit’s second year as head coach.
Nixa has turned into a factory. The Eagles have had ultra-successful junior varsity players waiting to make an impact at the next level. They also return maybe the best shooting duo in the area in Josh Peters and Garrett Hines. This will still be one of the best teams in the Ozarks.
Where will Bolivar look following Kyle Pock’s graduation?
Pock has been a standout in the Liberators’ starting lineup since he was a freshman. For the first time since then, Bolivar will be without a player who turned out to be one of the best the school has ever had.
Bolivar will have a new look this season as it will play in its final Ozark Conference season before moving to the new Ozark Mountain Conference. The Liberators return quite a bit from last year, including Gardner Casey, Drake Durham and Trenton Patke, and they’ll take on bigger roles with their go-to guy from last year now at Northern Iowa.
How far can Jacob Lafferty take Sparta?
The Trojans were one of the best teams in the region last year. They made a run to the Class 3 state quarterfinals after beating Greenwood and Stafford to come out with a district championship.
Expectations will remain high this year. They won’t sneak up on anyone at this year’s Blue and Gold after making a run to the championship last season. Jacob Lafferty is an established area star after averaging 23.5 points and 12 rebounds per game.
A roadblock could be another matchup with Thayer if the two were to meet again in the postseason. The Bobcats have top returners including South Central Association Player of the Year Aidan Burns.
Which of the two sophomore superstars (Glendale’s Amare Witham and Rolla’s Ethan Brown) will have the bigger year?
There’s seemingly always a player or two coming up who show they’re capable of becoming the best in the Ozarks. Heading into this year, we have a pair of sophomores who area already nearing elite status.
Glendale’s Witham and Rolla’s Brown both are Division I prospects. Both are extremely talented shooters from all over the court. You’ll see Witham on the Tournament of Champions stage with Brown making routine trips into the city as an All-Ozark Conference performer.
Can Central establish itself as the team to beat in the area?
It hasn’t happened very often recently but Central has a shot at being one of the best teams in the area, if not the best team in the area.
With the talent returning and the addition of former Waynesville star Tyrique Brooks, there aren’t a lot of teams with as much skill and athleticism as the one that calls The Pit its home.
Jordan Epps has been building this program up for the last few years and had it at 15-10 a year ago. With Brooks, Keion Epps, Trevor Wilson and others ready to lead the way, Central could be in a position to challenge for an Ozark Conference title before moving to the Central Ozark Conference in hoops next year.
Ozark returns three stars. Can it take a big step?
The Tigers were one of the hottest teams in the area late last season. With continuity, Ozark should be a challenger from the very start.
Hudson Roberts, Jace Whatley and Cohen George are three capable of making Ozark a contender in the Ozark Conference. With Nixa having roster turnover, this could be a great time for Ozark to strike.
You know Ozark is going to play extremely hard every game and six of its 15 losses were by three points or less. We’ll see the Tigers on the right end of more of those games and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them win a Blue and Gold title this year.
Who will be this year’s surprise team?
Here are some of our candidates for teams that can be easily slept on after graduations and whatnot.
Marshfield — The Blue Jays are coming off two consecutive seasons in which they finished below .500. That could change this year with a star in junior Tegen Curley going into a year in which he’ll be one of the area’s most talented. Marshfield loaded its schedule up and if it comes out of this year with a winning record, it’s really good.
Logan-Rogersville — If John Schaefer is still wearing suits on the sideline, then the Wildcats are going to have a chance in every game they play — no matter how much they lost from the year prior.
Catholic — Jay Osborne went 15-14 and won a district in his first year as the Irish head coach when he took over a completely different roster than the one that finished fourth in the state the year before. He’s one of the best coaches in the area’s history and he’ll have the Irish fightin’ at the end of the season.
Can someone beat out Jacob Lafferty for our player of the year honor?
Lafferty enters this season as our favorite for the News-Leader’s Player of the Year honor. He was one of four finalists for last year’s honor and the other three have graduated. He’s now that guy in the area.
There’s little doubt that someone will challenge him for that spot once the season ends. Glendale’s Witham is a dark horse as a sophomore and it’s easy to see Marshfield’s Curley or Parkview’s Govan having chances to emerge. The area isn’t extremely senior-heavy in elite talent but Lafferty should easily be considered the best of them all.
How will we be talking about next year’s conference realignment after this basketball season?
We can already conclude from the high school football season that there might be some growing pains for the Ozark Conference schools joining the Central Ozark Conference. We’re interested to see how these conferences match up this year before the two leagues somewhat merge next year.
There won’t be as steep of a hill to climb for the OC schools when Kickapoo will automatically become a favorite to win the league once added. There is also promise in the youth of the Parkview program and a lot to be excited about Central and Glendale over the next few years. These teams will compete with the likes of Nixa, Ozark, Willard and others.
The COC won’t be the only conference we’re talking about. The new Ozark Mountain Conference and its teams will be interesting to watch with Hillcrest, Bolivar and Logan-Rogersville each losing key players. Marshfield should be a team on the rise and West Plains is typically competitive.
Eventually adding Catholic to the mix with Strafford and Fair Grove’s success over the last few years in the Mid-Lakes should make it a stronger basketball league.
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or X at @WyattWheeler_NL. He’s also the host of the weekly “Wyatt’s World Podcast” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other podcasting platforms