Of Oak Grove’s three varsity winter sports teams, two are defending a title this season. The other is seeking to reclaim its title-winning tradition.
Oak Grove’s wrestling team is defending its Class 2 state title. Although the Panthers haven’t placed “too much emphasis on” repeating as champions, “it’s kind of hard to avoid” discussing or thinking about it, according to coach Bobbe Lowe.
“The kids are kind of thinking of it,” Lowe said. “They’re probably getting reminded from their families and friends – and probably past wrestlers. So you can’t totally avoid it this early.”
The boys basketball team is defending its Missouri River Valley Conference West Division title. Conference and district titles are part of the team’s goal, but reaching them hasn’t been a focal point, according to coach Ty Hames.
“Right now, we’re just trying to feel each other out, as far as the team goes, and work as hard as we can in practice, day by day, and try and develop a little bit of an identity,” Hames said.
Meanwhile, the girls basketball team is seeking to win its first district title in several years. “It’s just time to turn it around,” said coach Mike Cox, who’s in his fourth season at Oak Grove.
For more details about the teams and their respective quests, check out the segments below:
Should the Panthers take first again in February, it would be the first time the Panthers have repeated as champions since 2003-04. Lowe knows it’ll be difficult to achieve that feat.
One reason why is that Oak Grove lost five wrestlers to graduation, including two state champions: 138-pounder Anthony Barker and 145-pounder Logan Cairer. Others who departed in May included state runners-up Jacob Best (120) and Taylor Brinegar (160).
“They’ve got some pretty big shoes (to fill),” Lowe said of his 2013-14 team.
Then, there’s the competition.
“The depth in Class 2 is pretty spread out, so those guys are definitely going to have to … step up to the challenge,” Lowe commented. “I think it’s something that they’re capable of doing. We’ve still got some pretty good kids coming back.”
Defending state champion Tyler Brown is among those returning wrestlers. Brown, a senior, took the 126 title.
In addition, senior Bryce Mercer placed third at 132, sophomore Brock Mercer took fourth at 106, senior Preston Airington placed sixth at 195 and junior Dalton Brinegar also qualified.
“We’ve got some pretty good leadership,” Lowe said. “We’ve got a lot of variety. I think we have the talent to do it (repeat). I think it’s just going to take some time. We’re probably going to take some bumps and bruises along the way, but I think it’s something that we can do.”
Oak Grove’s success in football delayed the start of the Panthers’ journey toward defending their conference boys basketball title.
Because football season didn’t end until Oak Grove’s Nov. 16 loss to visiting Maryville in the Class 3 state quarterfinals, Hames didn’t have his first practice until Nov. 19 to allow his players who were on the football team to move from one sport to the other. That gave the Panthers only a week to practice before opening the season on Tuesday at Staley.
With a narrow window between football and basketball games, the Panthers are on a swift learning curve, Hames acknowledged.
“We’re basically treating it like cramming for a test in college,” he said. However, the Panthers have taken a few courses that should help them with the big exam, Hames suggested.
“We played a lot this summer – and we have a lot of players that have been … (with) the program for three or four years,” he said. “So we feel like a lot of them really know our system and really are familiar with what we do.”
That experience and a healthy lineup give Hames reasons to be optimistic about this season.
“I think we can be a good second-half-of-the-season team, and I think we can be scary,” he said. “I think we can be dangerous.”
Like the boys team, the girls team is faced with a quick learning curve because of their early season schedule.
The Panthers opened the season Monday at Holden. They’ll have additional road games at Richmond and St. Paul Lutheran and in tournament play at Higginsville before playing their Dec. 20 home opener.
Specifically, the Panthers must sharpen their defending skills quickly, according to Cox.
“I think the defense just isn’t where it should be yet,” he said. Cox is confident his players will learn quickly how to respond during game situations.
“We’ve had, for the most part, some really good practices,” he stated. “We’ve had a couple that haven’t been the best, but when you practice three weeks straight, you’re going to have some down days where you don’t have the juice…. They’re picking things up.”
One reason Cox believes the Panthers are learning well in practice is that the system is familiar to them.
“It’s just refreshing (what they’ve learned) and muscle memory and just repetition,” he said.