When Chadwick wasn’t quite the powerhouse they are at the present, the Niangua Cardinals faced them in head coach Kalem Copling’s first year at the Mark Twain Conference Tournament.

“We had six kids [that year],” Copling said. “We finished the game 2-on-5 and I think we lost by three. It was just ‘play your best and if you get in foul trouble, get out of the way.’ That was a sad game for the kids.”

It’s an exemplary moment of the peaks and valleys the program has gone through in the past decade.

The 2013-14 season was a banner year for Niangua boys basketball. Following improvements by two wins over several prior seasons, the Cardinals went on a torrid run over the second half of their schedule, beat Bradleyville for a district title, then captured a dramatic overtime victory in sectionals over Eminence. All that derailed the dream of a Final Four appearance was Scott County Central, a dynasty who went on to win the Class 1 title that year and the next.

In the two years that followed, the Cardinals went a combined 3-44.

Copling, a 2009 graduate of Lebanon High School (where he also played), grew up around the game. “My dad was a junior high coach, and as I was getting into college my brother was also, so it was kind of a natural fit for me,” he said.

Gaining experience in Lebanon, he took hold of the seventh-grade girls head coaching position before arriving at his current stop in Niangua.

“It was a total rebuild,” Copling said. “I came in [approaching it as] a great opportunity to show what I can build and be around a place long enough to put a stamp on the program, but my first couple years were very rough.”

In that aforementioned first season, the Cardinals ended 2-23, then graduated half of their six, ushering another rebuild. In the follow-up campaign, Copling started one player who had never played basketball before. He finished with just five players and a 1-23 record.

His third and fourth seasons only more forgiving in that the roster exceeded single-digits; both years the Cardinals went 1-24. In 2019, Niangua averaged just 28 points, but 21 of them came from one scorer.

The focus remained on fundamentals and basics, playing basketball the right way. A refusal to let one player shoot at any and all times, but rather to use all players at the best of their abilities.

Meanwhile, hope emerged from a younger age group.

“My first year, [our current freshmen] were in fifth grade and I didn’t know them too much, but in their sixth-grade year they showed a lot of promise,” Copling said. “They got bigger and stronger, more skilled and confident, then last year we went undefeated in junior high, which was a big deal. I knew I had five of them, not just two or three, and they kind of filled the five roles on the floor; it’s not like they’re all point guards.”

Eight players graduated from last year's team, but the five leftovers, including a trio of seniors, have provided a solid building block to couple with the incoming freshmen. Danny O'Neal, a starting point guard the past three years, has provided leadership. Dakotah Detherow has gone from never playing basketball as a sophomore to becoming a relied upon player. Hunter Humbard supplies hustle.

Add in two sophomores –– defensive pest Brayden Johnston and Andon Hamilton –– with the freshmen, and the results have spoken for themselves. By their fifth contest, the Cardinals had matched their two-win total that’s been the most in a season since 2014. Niangua’s Feb. 4 victory against New Covenant was significant on multiple fronts. It was not only the eighth win of the year, matching the combined amount over the past six years, but also the program’s first conference win since 2014.

“That was a big deal for us, and winning it on senior night was big for them,” Copling said. “I’m a pessimist. I did expect us to start taking steps in the right direction, but I wasn’t expecting the nine [wins] we’re at now.”

As for Niangua’s “Fab Five,” Clayton Henderson and Ethan Scheetz have provided a 1-2 punch as the team’s leading scorers. Evan Kochs provides the ability to alter shots, Ross Stuber can stick on the team’s best opposing guard and Hunter Cantrell has provided a post presence.

“All of them have been really key to this year,” noted Copling. “The upperclassmen have accepted roles that have maybe changed, and even the sophomores’ roles have changed [from when they were freshman], but it’s been a fun group to coach.”

The group has secured the 2-seed in its Class 1 district, which gets underway in Niangua against Hurley Saturday. Regardless of whether the road ends then, or with Chadwick (21-1), the district’s top-seeded team, the bar has been raised for the Cardinals, for the remainder of this season and beyond.

“Ultimately, we want to take it one step at a time, and our main focus is trying to take care of Hurley and just getting that first win that pushes us in the right direction, but the kids know that we’re not where we want to be still,” Copling said. “They’re still wanting to work hard and put in hours in the gym. They understand we don’t strive to be a nine-win team. We want to be where Chadwick or Hartville are, that’s the end goal. Will we make that? I don’t know. But we want to be in that position each year.”

Bryan can be followed on Twitter @BryanEversonMF.

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