Festus was the last team from the JCAA to win a district championship. The Tigers lost to Battle 54-45 in the Class 4 sectionals in 2014.

Last season, the JCAA had a record of 3-8 in district games, with Crystal City and Herculaneum posting the only victories. The Blackcats beat Jefferson in Class 3 District 3 before falling to eventual district champion Saxony Lutheran in the semifinals.

The Hornets were the only league team to reach a district final after they beat Bismarck and Valley of Caledonia in Class 2 District 4 before falling to Valle Catholic in the championship.

District assignments changed slightly this year. Festus and Windsor remain in Class 4 District 3, but Hillsboro was moved out of District 3 to District 2 with De Soto. In Class 3, Grandview exits District 4 and moves to District 3 with most of the other JCAA small schools from the county, Herculaneum, Jefferson and St. Pius X. Crystal City remains in Class 2 District 4.

A lack of playoff success doesn’t mean the county is devoid of talent. Quite the contrary. Festus senior Abby Rickermann (large schools) and Herculaneum senior Paige Fowler (small schools) were the league’s most valuable players last season and both return.

Rickermann has committed to play softball at Southeast Missouri State University next year, but she plays guard for the Tigers and led them with 15.9 points per game and sank 41 3-point baskets last year. She will help smooth the transition for Steve McFarland, who is the third head coach in three years at Festus.

“She is a coach’s dream,” McFarland said. “She works hard every second she’s out there and understands the game. She knows we have younger players who need to step up and do things for us. She makes sure the other girls are running the offense.”

Fowler is a power forward who led the Blackcats in scoring (15.2 per game) and rebounding (8.3). Her forays inside the paint led to 168 free-throw attempts.

“Paige is one of the most dedicated players I’ve coached,” Herculaneum head coach Riley Blair said. “She works on her game year-round and is determined to be the best player she can be night in and night out. Paige is an all-around good athlete with a lot of heart, hard work and determination that makes her the player she is.”

There are great rivalries that will continue this year. The JCAA Shootout at Jefferson College in December feeds the county’s healthy appetite for basketball with a full slate of games.

Maybe this will be the year a team from the league will break out of district bondage.

Here is a look at this year’s teams:

Festus Tigers have third head coach in three years

Before retiring in 2014, McFarland had coached high school basketball since 1979.

McFarland was hired by Festus in October to replace Chris Ellis as the girls basketball coach. He’s the Tigers’ third head man in three years. Ellis resigned before the season began and said he’s an assistant coach for the St. Louis Community College women’s basketball team.

After coaching tiny Parma in southeast Missouri, McFarland coached the Potosi boys from 1981 to 1995. He coached the Farmington girls after that for 19 years. McFarland led the Knights to five district championships and they finished second in Class 4 in 2007 and fourth in 2011.

Last season, Festus finished 20-5 and won the JCAA large-school division. The Tigers were the No. 1 seed in Class 4 District 3, but were knocked out in the semifinals by fourth-seeded Rockwood Summit, the eventual district champion.

Festus athletic director Eric Allen played basketball for McFarland at Potosi. McFarland was on the golf course when Allen called him about the job opening.

“School had started and they needed a coach so they looked for someone who was retired,” McFarland said.

“When they hired me, they told me it was for one year. I’m taking it on as ‘This is what we’ve got to do to build the program and keep it going in the right direction.’ I’ve been going to the middle school and getting the girls familiar with me to get more coming out.”

Rickermann and junior Jesse Hebenstriet are the two returning starters. Seniors Bria Garmon and Abby McMillin decided not to play this year to focus on other sports.

Despite committing to Southeast Missouri State University to play softball next year, Rickermann stuck with the basketball team and McFarland said she’s been a great aid in helping him get to know the other players.

Rickermann, a guard, led Festus with 15.9 points per game and was on the league’s first team.

McFarland said Hebenstriet (an honorable mention pick) is a solid post player, despite standing 5-9. She led the Tigers last year with 7.3 rebounds per game.

“She has a soft touch around the basket and uses her left hand nice,” McFarland said.

Festus competed in its jamboree on Friday and joining Rickermann and Hebenstriet in the starting lineup were junior guard Tristan Foulk, sophomore forward Kinsey Benack and sophomore post Lily Knickman.

Coming out for basketball for the first time, senior Kate Todd was just selected to the Class 4 all-state softball team.

When on defense, Festus will play zone press or zone. Offensively, McFarland said he wants to have a good shooting team and be aggressive. He said the Tigers will attack the basket with movement, cutting and screens.

“I came in late so I’m trying to learn their talents and what they can do and they’re adjusting to the things I like to do. I may call things a little differently,” McFarland said.

Blackcats have a lot of competition for starting jobs

After finishing 17-10 and in second place (4-1) in the small-schools division, Herculaneum returns with the conference’s top player and a lot of players trying to make their mark as starters.

“I have seven other girls vying for the three starting spots at this time,” said head coach Riley Blair, who enters his ninth season at the helm.

Fowler and senior point guard Taylor Metcalf have two of the starting jobs locked down. Fowler was on the league’s first team and Metcalf on the second team a year ago. Metcalf, a four-year starter, led the Blackcats with 162 assists and 92 steals last season.

“Taylor has the vision on the floor like no other girl I’ve ever coached,” Blair said. “She is so calm and collected and makes very smart passes and decisions on offense. Her ability to see the floor and make good decisions is why she was No. 2 last year in the St. Louis area in assists.”

Haley Benthall, Kylee Bohler, Ashley Croom, D’anna Harvey, Caitlyn Huber, Macey Pilliard, Emma Vaughn and Emily Wiese are all in competition for playing time. Croom (5.3 points per game) and Wiese (5.9) were consistent scorers a year ago. Croom tied for second on the team with 20 3-point baskets.

On defense, Blair said, Herky will scramble and recover and on offense it will try to score fast and often.

“Our team goals are to put ourselves in a position to win a conference and district title,” Blair said. “Our team motivation is to outwork our opponents for 32 minutes and to minimize our mistakes on both ends of the floor.”

Jones enters 17th season as Hornets’ head coach

“My biggest rival is Father Time,” Crystal City head coach Ken Jones said in jest. “I’m hurting by the end of practice these days.”

Jones has had a lot on his plate since the school year began. Also the school’s athletic director, he has supervised the cleanup and restoration of J.J. Commerford Stadium after another round of flooding almost kept the Hornets from playing there this fall. He’s had to take part in the transition of the football team leaving the I-55 Conference so it can rebuild and play teams more at its skill level. Now he has to get the Hornets ready for the grind of a winter basketball season that won’t end until late February, or if the Hornets win a district title, until March.

Coming off of its trip to the district final and a 10-16 campaign, Crystal City will look to improve on its 0-5 small-schools conference mark.

“I always want our team ready to compete for a district title,” Jones said.

Four-year starting point guard and leading scorer Kailey Krieg has graduated, leaving a huge hole in the offense. Their second leading scorer in 2018-2019, Taylor Sloan, was also a senior. Junior center Annie Waites averaged 7.7 points and is the leading returning scorer.

She will be joined in the starting lineup by senior guard Ashleigh Damazyn, senior guard Kylee Waters, freshman power forward Kate Eisenbeis and freshman guard Molly Clemmons.

Jones said he’s confident he has several players who can step in off the bench in senior power forward Reece Elliott, freshman Abbie Edwards and juniors Jillian Schubert and Mallory Bradley.

“The defense is coming along and I plan to sub more than the past few years, so stretching the defense could be something we look at,” Jones said. “Offensively, we will look to drive and use our post. We are working on our perimeter game daily.”

Eagles seek fourth straight small-schools championship

Grandview has won all 10 of its league games in the small-schools division over the last two years and has won three consecutive conference titles.

Head coach Steve Noblitt, who enters his second year, said his two main goals this season are to extend the conference run and for his players to achieve their highest potential. But that’s not all.

“Our goals are to steadily improve throughout the season, be competitive again within the conference and to be playing our best come district time,” Noblitt said.

Seniors Hailey Harlow, Sarra Faust, Isabelle Kuczka and Jordyn Zoph have been a part of 60 wins for Grandview (15-9 last year) over the last three seasons.

Harlow, a 5-10 forward, was selected to the small-schools first team and has scored 420 points, grabbed 282 rebounds and dished out 35 assists in the 65 games she’s played. Faust, a 5-8 guard, has 363 points, 205 boards and 108 helpers in 63 games. In 46 games, Kuczka has 264 points and 189 rebounds. Zoph’s played 60 games with 244 points, 127 rebounds and 82 assists.

“The talent is on hand so that multiple girls might challenge for postseason recognition,” Noblitt said.

Freshman Anna Belle Wakeland (6-2, forward), sophomore Natalee Moore (5-8, forward) and juniors Molly Gearhart (5-5, guard) and Megan Jones (5-8, forward) are the next four players in the rotation.

Noblitt said Wakeland has a huge upside, Moore is a tremendous athlete, Gearhart is a perimeter shooter and Jones continues to improve.

Grandview will attempt to control the tempo on both ends of the floor. Noblitt said the team’s depth has improved from last season.

The Eagles have challenging non-conference games against Park Hills Central, Lutheran North, Steelville, West County, Arcadia Valley and Perryville.

“They are all threats to show up in the state rankings,” Noblitt said. “We play in two tournaments, one at Herculaneum, which has a tremendously strong field, and the other at Bourbon will be a challenge. The conference will provide stiff competition as well.”

Hillsboro graduate takes over

Andrew Hubbard, a 2006 Hillsboro graduate, succeeds Joe Fehlker as head coach of the Hawks girls. He’s coached basketball at the school at the junior varsity and freshman level and has first-hand knowledge of county basketball.

“I guess I would consider De Soto as our biggest rival,” Hubbard said. “When I played them in high school it was always a great game and great atmosphere. I know Sam Rauls well and he runs a great program and his teams always play hard.”

Hubbard said his goals for Hillsboro in his first season are to see progress and maximum effort.

“We talk about it every day in practice that we want to walk out saying we are better than when we started that day,” he said. “We want to be able to look back on the season and see a lot of growth as individuals and as a team on and off the court.

“We also talk about giving everything we have at all times and that is something I am hoping to keep seeing throughout the season.”

In preseason practice, injuries have hindered Hubbard’s effort to put together his starting five players. He will rotate players in and out a lot in the early going.

“It will be more about matchups for each game and who is healthy,” he said.

Hillsboro finished 19-7 in 2016-2017, but slipped to 17-36 over the last two seasons. A year ago the Hawks were 4-22 and lost to Pacific in the Class 4 District 3 playoffs.

Fortunately, they return senior Elaina Readnour, who led the team with seven points and seven rebounds per game last year. But Readnour is still recovering from an injury. Hubbard said when she gets healthy, she’ll provide valuable leadership.

Senior Alicen Dietrich, at 5-10, will be counted on down low on offense and defense. Senior Maggie Galczyinski could be the Hawks’ top rebounder. Junior Payton Bingman is the point guard and junior Zoe Wood does a little bit of everything on the floor. Junior Maya LaPlante, who averaged five points in 25 games last year, is expected to produce offense.

Among the newcomers on varsity are wing players Abby Cole and Ryleigh Hindle, post player McKenzie Golden and Lily Shropshire, who can play the point or wing.

“We are a team that doesn’t have a lot of speed, so on offense and defense we are going to try and slow the pace down,” Hubbard said. “We want to be efficient on offense and defense and limit our mistakes as much as possible.”

Coach wants to turn around Lancers’ record

After finishing last season 10-15 and 1-4 in the conference, St. Pius X head coach Aaron Portell said he wants to flip the script. He also has his sights set on winning the small-schools division.

“It’s been four years since we were conference champs, so I would really like to take back control of it,” he said.

Junior guard A.J. Agers has been a constant presence the last two seasons. Agers earned first-team small-schools honors last season after she led her team in scoring (13.7 points per game), assists (52) and steals (93).

Post Angie Johnson and guards Payton Baker (an honorable mention selection) and Colleen Flanagan join Agers in the starting lineup. A.J. Stetina, Alondra Reyes and Rita Eimer are contending for the other starting role. Eimer recently won a medal by finishing 22nd at the Class 2 state cross country championships.

“I do think Rita is going to be that one player off the bench who gives us instant energy,” Portell said.

When on offense, the Lancers are a quick team with several good ball handlers.

“So I would like to see us score in transition quite often,” Portell said.

Defending could be their key to success.

“With everyone coming back, I hope we have a little more experience on the defensive end,” Portell said. “We should be aggressive and force a lot of high-pressure situations for the opponent.”

Owls foes will pay the Piper

Junior Piper Montgomery was recently named to the Class 3 first team at catcher by the Missouri High School Fastpitch Coaches Association.

She was an honorable mention pick to the league’s large-schools basketball team last season for the Owls, who doubled their win total from three to six from 2017-2018. Montgomery was an honorable mention all-conference selection and led Windsor in scoring and rebounding with 7.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. She also blocked 10 shots.

Junior Elizabeth Spurgeon is the other returning starter. Spurgeon’s scoring and rebound totals were close to Montgomery’s with 4.5 per game for both categories. Spurgeon and her twin sister, Isabella, along with junior Lauren Bilbrey, have all been working hard on strength and conditioning in the offseason.

Seven newcomers join the varsity this year. Junior Symphony Schodroski played in only one game last year, but head coach Kim Schmidt said she expects her to make a big impact this season. Sophomores Cierra Parker, Riley Siegel and freshman Raegan Daly join the varsity this year.

“(Schodroski) has continued to improve each year and she has the opportunity to help the team,” Schmidt said.

The Owls, who were 6-18 overall and 0-4 in the JCAA, lost their final eight games and were beaten in the first round of last year’s Class 4 District 3 tournament by Lutheran South.

“We’re looking to improve on our record from last year and feel that we should be a more competitive team this year,” Schmidt said.

Dreyer back in the saddle

In January 2018, Jefferson athletic director Jason Dreyer coached the balance of the boys basketball season after Nic Zenker resigned.

Dreyer hired Sean Breeze to coach the Blue Jays boys, but he finds himself back on the sideline coaching the Jefferson girls. It’s his second stint with the team, as he was the coach from 2010-2013. He replaces Brandon Joines, who coached the Blue Jays for four seasons and led them to a record of 47-51. Jefferson finished 14-10 and 2-3 in the conference in his final year.

“Each of the teams in our side of the conference are our biggest rivals and some of our biggest games on our schedule,” Dreyer said.

Three of the five starters were integral parts of the school’s softball team. Perennial all-state shortstop Abi Chipps, Sydney Stewart and Catryn Cattoor made the quick transition from the diamond. Guards Laney Smith and Morgan Fuller are the other two starters. Smith was a second-teamer on the small-schools team last year.

“Abi is very quick and athletic and is one of our top defenders,” Dreyer said. “Catryn is a very strong post player. While (not tall) for a post player, her quickness and strength make up for that. Laney is athletic and a great shooter.”

Smith led the Blue Jays with 11.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game last year.

Seniors Emma Earls and Nehley Ervin, juniors Brittany Bittick, Riley Jackson, Katie Pope and Maddie Schrage should all be productive coming off the bench.

Dreyer said he’s throwing new wrinkles at his team every day.

“I am expecting us to be competitive every night we step on the floor and for us to improve and become more on the same page as the season progresses,” he said.

Dragons rebound from loss of top two players

Kendall Boyer and Kaitlyn McGinnitey represented 29 out of De Soto’s 47 points per game last season.

Boyer and McGinnitey received their diplomas last spring, so now it’s time for a new crop of Dragons to make their marks.

De Soto head coach Sam Rauls, who enters his fifth season, said he has his starting lineup set. The guards are senior Kristen Keath, junior Abby Pope and sophomore Trista Grobe, while the forwards are senior Madyson Young and junior Kamryn Pehle. Keath is the top returning scorer (3.3 per game last year). She also led the squad with 2.25 assists per game.

“We have many girls who have done some amazing things and won awards in other sports and we’re hoping those successes lead into basketball success,” Rauls said.

Rauls said his team doesn’t have a true sixth player, but many players will participate in many ways and at different times this year.

“We will go 13 deep and all of the girls will contribute,” he said.

It’s not often a basketball team enters its district with a winning record and is seeded last. But that was the case for

De Soto when it entered Class 4 District 2 at 14-10 and was handed the sixth seed. The Dragons trailed North County 35-32 going into the fourth quarter before succumbing 50-45. De Soto was 2-2 in large-schools play.

“Like any team the goals are to win conference, district and state titles, but that all starts by coming out strong and winning the first game,” Rauls said.

“(The conference) will be very competitive again this year, no matter what anyone says. Until you can defeat the defending champions, you have to give them the edge. Our district is tough and competitive, but we won’t back down.”