Ozark coach Mark Schweitzer is confident one area of the Tigers' game that began as a strength last season, then became a glaring weakness, will return to a strength this season.
Namely, shooting with the game on the line.
Ozark started last season 4-0 in games decided by five points or less and Troy Davidson and Parker Ramsdell delivered game-winning buckets at the buzzer. But by the end of the season that included a one-and-done at Districts, the Tigers were 6-5 in such contests.
Schweitzer, while previewing this season, is confident he has a variety of stars ready to sink clutch shots.
“Toward the end of last season, we didn’t close out games like we had earlier. We have to be better in that area,” Schweitzer said. “Our team last year had kids who didn’t have a shooting mentality. They were role players. This year, we have scorers who are trying to fill role positions. Everybody has the mentality to put the ball in the hole. I don’t think this team will have any trouble closing out games and putting up and making big buckets.”
The nucleus of this group of Tigers is used to winning. A junior class led by guard Kyle Flavin will contribute mightily.
“Our junior class is ready to go,” Schweitzer said. “They’ve had very solid years. I don’t know their exact record, but they only lost five games over two years at the freshman and jayvee levels. They’re not used to getting beat. That is a strength that can go a long way.”
Flavin enjoyed some big moments last season, including a 26-point outing versus Webb City. But he was bogged down by opposing defenses at the end of the season.
Schweitzer expects Flavin's peaks and valleys won’t be so dramatic this time around.
“He’s ready to break out as a more consistent scorer,” Schweitzer said.
Blaine Cline, a junior, has emerged as a prominent part of the offense.
“He’s become a point-forward type. He doesn’t have to bring the ball up against pressure," Schweitzer said. "But he’s great at drawing defenses while setting up his teammates. He’s versatile. He can make shots around the basket. He’s another guy ready to bust out.”
Look out for Tyler Harmon, a sophomore swingman who has made great strides.
“He has stood out in the gym with his competitiveness,” Schweitzer said. “His energy level is contagious. He’s emerging as a leader.”
Ozark seniors A.J. Elliott, Alonzo Riwa and Jake Skaggs will be major components, as well.
Schweitzer expects Elliott to have more room to roam and not just be the Tigers’ man in the middle.
“He has different areas of his game he’s ready to display,” Schweitzer said. “We’re not going to have A.J. just sit on the block for us. He’s going to be moving in and out. That will open up the paint for some of his teammates for a back door or a dribble-drive and cut. A.J. is ready to show he can play his way into a college opportunity. “
Riwa worked his way into more playing time last season and looks to contribute at both ends of the floor again.
“I think he’s got something to prove,” Schweitzer said. “His defensive ability matches up well with the younger guys we have coming up.”
Skaggs is in line to be a positive addition at point guard perhaps by the Blue & Gold Tournament. He is in comeback mode currently after injuring a knee in football season.
“He’s already doing non-contact (exercises),” Schweitzer said. We’re hoping we get him back by Christmas time. He’s going to elevate the team as a great competitor.“
Schweitzer leaves no doubt this is his kind of team.
“I have a lot of fun with them. They react well to me and respond to my challenges,” Schweitzer said,. “I can get on them and they know it’s nothing personal. I think with how this team is made up and how I am, it’s a good fit.
“These kids are going to play hard. Their effort will always be there,” he added. “They like to play together and share the ball. They’re going to play team basketball. We don’t have one guy who needs to dominate the ball in terms of touches. But you don’t know anything until you start games. I want to see what we have with the lights on.”
Ozark debuts tonight at 5:30 at the Republic Tournament opposite Springdale, Arkansas. In addition to Skaggs being out, the Tigers likely will be minus Cline, as he recovers from a foot injury.
One notable change to the Tigers’ schedule is they withdrew from the Nixa Invitational Tournament in favor of the Sedalia Shootout.