Quietly, Niangua girls basketball has taken small steps to become a winner.
“I think they had 20 wins the 10 years prior to me getting here and we had 13 last year,” said Lady Cardinals head coach Clint Gazette at June’s Tri-Lakes Shootout in Strafford.
Wins had indeed been scarce for the program. Since 2011, Niangua has had a one-win season and a pair of seasons with two and three wins each. But starting with 2017, that win total jumped to nine, and has stayed in the double-digits, including a 13-12 year most recently.
After dispatching School of the Ozarks in their playoff opener opener, the Lady Cards fell 63-57 in overtime to Bradleyville, coming narrowly close to playing for a district title.
Said Gazette, “The way we ended last year, taking Bradleyville into overtime in the district semifinals, it’s the first time Niangua’s had a whiff of district championship basketball since 1998? Twenty-one years. They had more players –– taller, more athletic –– but we played our game and it worked.”
“Now we have to change it because we don’t have 10 players like last year, but we’ll have to find a different way. No one can get in foul trouble...they’ll be fit [laughs].”
The pair of seniors returning this winter for the Lady Cards will be Ashton Stuber and Kaydance Knifong, who Gazette says have led the way and made the change that helped raise the bar. Stuber, a second-team All-Mark Twain selection as a junior, runs the point, while Knifong adds shooting and defensive prowess.
Behind them, there’s help from the underclassmen. Addison Terry is bouncy with length, and Gazette calls Ally Petty “a five in a guard’s body.” Then there’s Ashtyn Callaway, who was first-team all-conference as a freshman by averaging 15 points and nearly nine rebounds.
Could there be more talent coming up the pipe for Niangua? “I have some fifth-graders coming,” Gazette joked, adding his hopes for several eighth-graders and that anyone currently in the district stay in the district to allow for the most robust pool of players possible. “It’s a small district, so we need everyone to stay,” he said candidly.
The Lady Cards got more practice at trying to chop down bigger teams at the Shootout.
“We’re the smallest school here by a landslide so we come up and play against JV teams and against Willow [Springs],” Gazette said. “We put up 19 against Willow’s varsity, and they scored 32, but they’re SCA Conference Champs. Is that someone we shouldn’t be playing? Not necessarily. They have seven girls over there, but they have 21 fighting for those spots...it’s a different beast.”
That means that keeping on the same page and staying within the system is key, and opportunities like the Shootout provided a chance to hone that. The setting is something that simply can’t be replicated among the team’s own players.
“When you’re guarding the same kid over and over, kids get tired and jack around; here, you get tired and a team buries you,” Gazette said. “It’s so much more competitive. I can show them a million things that can happen on the defense, but today there’s three new things that popped up that I haven’t seen in 16 years of coaching. [Things teams do here], in 1A, they don’t do that.”