Every season brings with it a sense of the great unknown, but that's especially true for Neosho girls basketball this season under new head coach Matt Hixson.
Former head coach Grant Berendt took the head coach slot at Big 8 Conference power Mount Vernon and six standout players graduated from last season, Makayla Hayes (who earned Central Ozark Conference Large top player honors last season), Caitlyn Jordon, Allison Burr, Ashley Talley, Tori Frazier, and Emilee Kivett.
Only senior Madison Flynn returns with significant varsity experience.
"There's no getting around it: This is definitely a rebuilding year," Hixson said. "We have one senior that saw time last year and the rest of them are all JV kids that are moving up. They're learning that we're going to have to count on them and I think they're stepping up to the plate. I'm happy with what I've seen.
"We have some really strong players this year at the sophomore level, who I think we'll be able to rely on. As we look forward, we have a good leader in our senior and we have the pieces that we need. We have a junior (Mary Dunbar) that can handle the ball for us. We have sophomores that can step up and shoot. It's just a matter of getting them to come together and buy into each other."
Neosho opens its season Saturday against Eldon at a neutral site in Rolla.
"We're very excited about Saturday," Hixson said. "I've been watching film on Eldon. They play a different style of play up there in Central Missouri and I'm glad I put this on the schedule. Like you said, it's a chance to go up against a team we probably won't see again. I think the tempo and the way they sell defense to their kids up there is definitely going to be a challenge for us. I think it will be a great chance to expose our kids to a different style, a different pace. You know you can only beat each other up at practice so much and then you have to see something else."
You can expect to see a different Lady Wildcat team in more ways than one.
"We've been working real hard on changing our style of play and changing up our defense a little bit from last year," Hixson said. "Working on ball pressure and help defense. To be honest with you, coming into this, we haven't put a whole lot into our offense just yet, so I was happy with the fact that we had girls who were willing to step up and go. We definitely have our work cut out for us."
Neosho hosted Southwest, El Dorado Springs, and Lamar, schools that it will otherwise not see during the season, for a jamboree Tuesday night.
"I told the girls that we have a huge journey ahead of us," Hixson said right after the first leg of the jamboree against Southwest. "This was the beginning of the journey. The main thing I was looking for that first half was obviously who's going to set the tone, who's going to go out and play good defense, secure the rebound, take a charge, that kind of thing, who's going to get them pumped up on the bench and who's going to be a leader.
"I think that's the biggest thing about a jamboree like this is trying to pick out who's going to step up, who's going to lead, and who's going to be that person we go to and we count on. I saw some good things. I thought offensively we got a little stagnant at times, but overall I was pleased."
Neosho plays its first home game Monday against Newton County rival Seneca, plays in the Carl Junction Classic, their own Neosho Holiday Classic, and the Smith-Cotton Tournament, and opens COC play January 7 on the road against Republic. With new member Joplin added to the mix, there's nine conference games this season.
The Lady Wildcats dropped from Class 5 to Class 4 and their District 12 this season includes conference rivals Carl Junction and Webb City and Big 8 schools Cassville, McDonald County, and Monett. That's evenly split between Big 8 and COC schools.
Hixson said in the fall that Neosho expected this move from Class 5 to Class 4.
NEOSHO GIRLS BASKETBALL
No. Player Grade
0 Madison Flynn 12
1 Avery Renfro 10
2 Michelle Lindsay 10
3 Andi Johnson 10
5 Mary Dunbar 11
10 Melia Robertson 10
15 Brylee King 10
20 Halley Merrell 11
23 Olivia Hixson 10
32 Maile Gindling 11
51 Kristy Pace 11
Nov. 17 — vs. Eldon (at Rolla)
Nov. 19 — vs. Seneca
Nov. 26-Dec. 1 — Carl Junction Tournament
Dec. 3 — vs. Cassville
Dec. 6 — vs. Providence Academy
Dec. 11 — at Monett
Dec. 14 — at East Newton
Dec. 27-29 — Neosho Holiday Classic
Jan. 7 — at Republic
Jan. 11 — at Willard
Jan. 17-19 — Smith-Cotton Tournament
Jan. 25 — vs. McDonald County
Jan. 29 — vs. Carl Junction
Jan. 31 — vs. Ozark
Feb. 4 — at Carthage
Feb. 7 — at Branson
Feb. 12 — at Webb City
Feb. 14 — vs. Nixa
Feb. 18 — vs. Joplin