Improving to the End
HOLLISTER – The Ava Bears’ season ends at 6-19 overall and 3-4 in the South Central Association conference this year after suffering a 64-48 first-round loss to Forsyth in the Class 4-District 11 Tournament.
The Bears’ season has been fraught with adversity, starting the season with no experienced core of players to build upon like seasons past.
Coupled with the arrival of a new coaching staff the Bears had to figure out who they were as a team and had to do so from scratch.
The Bears started the season with a 41-30 loss to Cabool but picked up the win against Conway during the Strafford Invitational. It would be nine losses until the Bears caught a break with a redemption win against Cabool during an SCA conference matchup.
The Bears took on another four losses until they overcame Gainesville, 63-51. Another four losses later the weary Bears would see their greatest success of the season with a three-game winning streak over Houston, Salem and Aurora.
The win streak closed out the regular season on a high note, but the Missouri State High School Activities Association bracket put them up against the Forsyth Panthers, to whom Ava had already lost earlier in the season.
The Bears were much improved compared to the 66-25 loss Ava had taken during the regular season against Forsyth. In that first matchup the Bears couldn’t break out of single digit scoring in each of the four quarters.
One thing remained the same though. The Panthers got a big quarter to launch them beyond reach of the Ava Bears. In their first meeting it was a 23-9 third quarter which really blew open the gap on the scoreboard.
This time around the Bears suffered a similar, 22-8, blowout, but in the second quarter of play.
The Bears took a run of six from the Panthers to open the second game of the district tournament.
Forsyth relied heavily on Ryder Blevins, who scored 12 in the first quarter and served up 32 total points for the Panthers.
The 12 included a steal which the 6’4” senior took to the other end and dunked at the start of the game.
Ava was able to answer the dunk and initial run of six with a sprint of five starting with Isaac Dalton’s 17th triple of the season at the 4:59 mark. Ashton Stout followed with a long two in the perimeter before the Panthers answered back and drew a foul.
Blevins had driven it to the basket and pulled the whistle on a block from the Ava defense, completing the three-point-play in the process. Blevins would get the and-one a second time in the first.
Carter Mahan had the last word from Ava, hitting a shot inside with the feed from Dalton ending the Bears’ offensive bid of the first quarter. Forsyth completed a 10-2 run in the process, closing out the first with a 16-7 lead.
The Bears continued to struggle offensively in the second scoring just eight points to Forsyth’s 22.
The Panthers changed gears and fed Tanner Baird in the post. Baird is the tallest player on the Forsyth roster, and a sophomore at that.
The 6’11” forward easily towered over the Bears and went in for nine points in the second and countless rebounds in throughout the game.
Blevins continued to produce with six more points, including a spectacular put-in on an alley-oop.
The Bears scored eight with Bridger Weidmeier hitting his 33rd triple of the season. A bucket from Dalton and another from Garrison Honneycutt on the assist from Dalton built a run of five for Ava.
With the Bears taking the big 22-8 second quarter from the Panthers, Ava was down 23 at halftime.
Ava came out and ruffled the Panthers with a 16-14 win in the third quarter. Mahan came up with the first shot of the second half, a basket at the 7:28 mark, followed by Dalton with his 18th triple of the season.
Dalton added another two baskets on top of that, as did Mahan before Stout came in with his 11th from beyond the arc with 1:16 remaining in the quarter. The points came by means of a slug fest, with both teams trading shots on the scoreboard.
Despite a four-point sprint from Forsyth, the Bears went toe-to-toe with Panthers’ varsity and won the third quarter.
The Bears continued to serve up points with a 17-12 fourth quarter win. Stout served up his 12th triple of the season followed by Dalton and Mahan with one bucket each.
The Panthers started fouling Ava on the shot causing three trips to the stripe where the Bears took on five additional points. Before the final horn Weidmeier hit his 34th three-pointer of the season on the inbound to the corner.
Forsyth cut their starters with 1:43 left, but Ava had gone ahead and found a bit of redemption with the second half win despite the overall loss.
This season the Bears scored 994 points with an offensive average of 39.76 PPG and shot an overall 61.5-percent from the free throw line.
“I told the guys I think the most important thing to take out of this year is the fact that no matter the circumstance we kept working,” said Coach Riley Jenkins. “I think over the last three weeks we started doing things better than we had done them. Things we didn’t know we were capable of doing we did well and gave ourselves a chance. That is a testament to not staring at the situation, the record, and just putting their nose down to keep working. I told them, for that specific reason, you don’t hang your head and (be) proud of what we did this year.”
Dalton led Ava in overall scoring with 368 points and 79.7-percent accuracy from the stripe. He made 104 buckets and another 18 from beyond the arc.
Weidmeier led the Bears in three-point shooting, hitting a total of 34 triples and had the team’s third highest point tally in his sophomore season at 115 points.
With the season at an end, the Bears will bid farewell to four seniors.
Mahan was second in overall points, hitting 61 buckets and 21 free throws for 143 points. Mahan brought more than muscle in the post according to Jenkins.
“He is a big and strong guy,” said Jenkins. “He is all muscle, obviously a good football player. What I see in Carter, and he isn’t vocal about it and will have a hard time telling you, but he really cares about the guys. He is willing to find them and make their day better. He wants to do what is best for others. The fact that he cares shows a selfless nature and he is not worried about what he gets out of it. He is willing to do things for those around him.”
Grady Goss delivered 58 points this season, but his big contributions come as a defender on the other end of the court. He hit 23 twos in his senior year along with nine free throws. He hit one triple against Mountain Grove.
“Grady is tough and gritty,” said Jenkins. “He has a lot of courage and willing to do hard things. Not just physically (tough), but mentally. You can knock him down and his energy seems to match what it was before or go beyond it. Gritty, hard-nosed and (doesn’t quit) even if he gets hit right on the bridge and his eyes water.”
Stout brought leadership to the table in addition to his 84 points this season. The departing senior scored 19 baskets and hit 12 from beyond the arc with 10 free throws.
“Ashton is just a leader,” said Jenkins. “He is willing to be vocal, make himself uncomfortable and do hard things. He is amazing to me because you can see how he is willing to do those things. It makes the guys around him get out of their comfort zone. He is a natural leader and I see him being successful at what he does in the future because of that ability of being okay with being uncomfortable.”
Jaren Lakey did not see as many minutes as a senior may wish to have but hit a triple against Sparta this season. The senior brought with him a valuable sense of camaraderie and support which can be difficult to find in rough seasons when it is needed the most.
“It’s real easy for a guy, to start looking at himself and not getting what he wants, to be selfish and have a hard time being a good teammate,” said Jenkins. “That is not Jaren. He is in practice every day, encouraging guys when things get hard and tries to make their days better. When you see guys making shots, he is the first one jumping off the bench hooting and hollering about their success. That’s the great thing about Jaren. He is always a great teammate no matter what circumstance he finds himself in.”
Despite the rocky season, Coach Jenkins saw a lot of growth and development which can carry on to the next year with the soon-to-be junior class taking the helm of Ava Bears Basketball.
“I’m proud of it,” said Jenkins. “Proud of the work we did no matter what the outcome was. We were trying to get better and had a group of guys that were willing to get better no matter what was going on.”