By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Coming off one of the greatest seasons in state history, there are plenty of unanswered questions surrounding the Hartville boys basketball program.
But coach Brett Reed knows the answer to at least one of them.
There is absolutely, positively, without a doubt, no way the Eagles will be able to top the 31-0 season that culminated in the program’s second straight state championship and third in the past six years.
“What last year’s team achieved is simply historic from a Hartville basketball perspective as well as a Missouri basketball perspective,” Reed said. “No one could have ever imagined that we would finish undefeated with the tough schedule we played. The group of seniors we had last season were extremely special. Last year’s season can never be topped.”
The thing is, Reed admitted he likely would have said the same thing following the 2019-20 campaign, after the Eagles went 31-2 en route to the state title. Then last year’s team turned in an undefeated season against one of the most challenging schedules imaginable.
The reigning Class 3 champions have a habit of finding a way to go above and beyond anyone’s expectations — including their coach’s.
“Honestly, with what we had returning last year our team still didn’t feel like the favorite to win it again,” Reed said. “Everyone still talked about Greenwood and the players that moved in or became eligible. We still felt like underdogs and the boys played with a chip on their shoulder due to this.”
Hartville could just as easily be an underdog this season. The 2019-20 champions lost just one senior before the 2020-21 season, while last year’s entire starting lineup graduated this spring.
That means this year’s group has “virtually zero varsity experience” outside of one player who played spot minutes last season, Reed said.
“Last year’s seniors cannot be replaced,” the coach added. “They did, however, show our younger guys the right way to go about their business. They took pride in our program and had a team-first mindset their entire careers. They have shown our younger guys what it takes to succeed and to do so at the highest of levels. That cannot be overlooked.”
That departed senior class includes all-state selections Ryce Piper, who will continue his career at Drury, and Braden Branstetter plus all-district honoree Cody Mahan. All-Summit Conference picks Eli Cook, who will play baseball at Evangel, and Brady Ward also graduated.
The quintet seldom left the floor last season, making senior Eric Wilson the only returning Hartville player with measurable variety experience. He and fellow 6-foot-1 classmate Jacob Ballard “will be counted on to lead this team in many aspects,” Reed said.
Juniors Brody McNiel (6-foot-4), Haylon Bel (6-foot) and Ethan McDaris (5-foot-10) will all play significant varsity minutes, while sophomores Logan Simpson (5-foot-9), Grant Culver (6-foot-4) and Jalon Cryer (5-foot-10) will also be asked to make immediate contributions to a team that will feature a wide-open battle for playing time as it looks to answer some key questions.
“Where is our scoring going to come from?” Reed said. “Who are our defensive stoppers? Who can play within our system? Who is going to clean up the boards each night? We are young, and so there will be a learning curve and this team will need to learn fast and compete hard each night to achieve their goals.”
Highly touted freshman Jackson Ward (6-foot-0) will also compete for varsity minutes and could be a name to watch.
“(He) will need to prove he belongs in practices and in games,” Reed said. “I believe he could be a big asset for our program now and in the future.”
While short on varsity experience, Reed noted the team spent all of last season practicing against Piper, Cook, Branstetter, Ward and Mahan and have grown up in one of the region’s most successful basketball programs.
The Eagles claimed their ninth straight district championship last season, winning at least 22 games in every season during the stretch. They’ll be looking to extend both streaks this season, along with the 42-game win streak that dates back to February 2020.
Hartville’s current run is the longest active win streak in the state, according to the Missouri State High School Activities Association record book, and the seventh-longest in state history.
“Our guys coming into this year have the right mindset and are working hard to be the best version of themselves that they can be,” Reed said. “I have faith that this team will continue to get better each day with the mindset that they have right now.”
Hartville’s overall mindset isn’t changing, either.
By prioritizing defense and rebounding, the Eagles won their state quarterfinal game despite scoring just 36 points. They scored 43 in the championship game and won that, too.
No matter which five players are on the court, expect games to have a similar feel this winter.
“Without defense and rebounding, we will not be able to compete at a high level,” Reed said. “We want this to be a strength for every team year in and year out. We may go about things philosophically a little differently this year, but at the end of the day our success or failure will rely heavily on how well we rebound and defend.”
Hartville begins its title defense on November 27 at the Current River Challenge. Its home opener is set for December 7 against Mountain Grove.
“Our goal each year is to compete for a district and state title,” Reed said. “However, there is no doubt this will be a year of growth for our team. I believe this team can get a lot better from November to February and our goal is to be the best version of ourselves that we can be come playoff time.”
By Michael Cignoli (For OzarksSportsZone.com)