Familiarity is the theme for the girls side of the Neosho Holiday Classic when they start play Thursday.
There’s three Northwest Arkansas Class 7 schools in Bentonville, Springdale Har-Ber, and two-time defending Holiday Classic champion Van Buren.
Then, two schools from the same Missouri city, St. Joseph Lafayette and St. Joseph Central.
And, of course, the two area schools in Neosho and McDonald County, whose rivalry game every year fills the stands in either Neosho or Anderson.
Rivalry might be another word to describe the girls side best.
“It’s a very good field,” Neosho head coach Grant Berendt said. “Bentonville comes in at 9-1 or 10-1 right now. Van Buren’s record a little bit deceiving. They’re 4-4 coming in, but all close games. They graduated four of their starters off last year’s team but they return the point guard, a Division I signee with Belmont. Any time you have a player of that caliber, if they buy in around her, it’s going to be solid.
“You’ve got St. Joe Lafayette. Again, they lost a lot but they return a really good point guard. New to the field this year is Springdale Har-Ber. We got to see them play a couple times at the Carthage tournament and they play some teams on our schedule. We’re excited to see what we can do here and it’s played in one of our home gyms, in the gym that districts will be held. It will be important for us to have a good showing and play well over at the junior high.”
Originally, it was slated to be an eight-team field, but Cedar Ridge (Arkansas) pulled out. Then, on Christmas Eve, a revised bracket was released with the Bentonville JV stepping in for an eighth team and the grand prize of an opening game against Van Buren.
The defending champions are led by 5-foot-7 senior point guard Jamilyn Kinney, who has sparked the Lady Pointers to consecutive titles. Van Buren blew out Neosho for the crown last season.
Kinney averaged 15.2 points and 4.4 assists during her junior season, and her scoring might have to pick up her senior season because of the graduation of four starters from last season’s Arkansas state semifinalist. She knocked down 71 3-point shots and shot 51 percent from the field last season.
She’s the No. 11-ranked player overall in the Arkansas girls “Fab 40” and the highest-ranked among the three Arkansas schools in the field.
In a media release, Belmont head coach Bart Brooks said of Kinney, “Jamilyn is a really skilled point guard who has great vision to pass, she’s really unselfish but she can score when she needs to score. She’s going to fit in really well with our style of play. In addition to that she’s a rock-solid person and a great kid.”
Bentonville is led by junior guard Avery Hughes. In the season opener, Hughes broke three school records in a 62-54 win over Greenwood and she began her season with 34 points.
Hughes and the Lady Tigers are 9-1 on the season with their only loss against Greenwood in the Greenwood Tournament.
Senior point guard Tray Byrd leads the Fighting Irish of St. Joseph Lafayette. Over her first six games, Byrd averaged 13 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and three steals. On different nights, Byrd has grabbed 11 rebounds, dished out eight assists, and made six steals. Turnovers have been high, though, for Byrd, with seven in a couple games.
Back to Neosho.
In Berendt’s first three seasons as head coach, the Lady Wildcats have made it to the championship game twice and won once. Back when the tournament split into two divisions, Neosho won a Black Division title against Buffalo (Texas) and former Neosho standout Chelsey Henry reached 1,000 career points during that win.
The Lady Wildcats are 6-1 on their season thus far, their only loss against returning Class 4 state fourth place finisher Carl Junction.
Caitlyn Jordon has returned to the lineup after missing her junior season with an injury, and the Lady Wildcats have at their core six seniors who have been through the battles throughout their high school career.
Makayla Hayes, Allison Burr, Emilee Kivett, Tori Frazier, and Ashley Talley make up the other five.
Entering the Holiday Classic, Hayes leads the Wildcats with averages of 15.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 3.6 steals, highly capable of a double-double every game out. Hayes shot 47 percent — 9 for 19 — from 3-point range over her first seven contests.
Burr averages 10.3 points with eight 3-point goals second on the Lady Wildcats behind Hayes and Jordon averages 7.1 points and 6.6 rebounds.
The other seniors and junior Madison Flynn have all had their moments this season.
After the Lady Wildcats’ 56-27 win their last time out against East Newton, Berendt talked about preparations for the Holiday Classic.
“We are going to watch some film and reiterate some things that are important,” Berendt said. “I thought we shot free throws better tonight and we got there a lot, which is a positive for us. I think we fouled a little bit too much late and we don’t want to give teams opportunities to score with the clock stopped. We’re going to get back to work this week at the junior high and it’s the first time we’ve practiced there. We’re excited about that and we’re trying to improve on who we are.”
Van Buren vs. Bentonville JV, noon
Lafayette vs. Har-Ber, 1:30 p.m.
McDonald County vs. Neosho, 5 p.m.
Bentonville vs. St. Joseph Central, 6:30 p.m.
— All games played at Neosho Junior High
2016: Van Buren (Arkansas)
2015: Van Buren (Arkansas)
2014: Springdale, Arkansas (Gold)
2014: Neosho (Black)
2013: Bentonville, Arkansas (Gold)
2013: Neosho (Black)
2012: Pierce City (Gold)
2012: Webb City (Black)
2011: Bentonville (Arkansas)
2010: Bentonville (Arkansas)
2009: Fair Grove
2007: Morrilton (Arkansas)
2006: Siloam Springs (Arkansas)
2005: Morrilton (Arkansas)
2004: Morrilton (Arkansas)
2003: Morrilton (Arkansas)
2001: Sapulpa (Oklahoma)