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MOUNTAIN GROVE — After consecutive appearances at the Missouri Class 3 Final Four, including a third-place finish a year ago, the Mountain Grove Panthers are back with a vengeance this season.
Some might have assumed the Panthers would take a step back after the graduation of key seniors, but the team is off to one of the better starts of any squad in southwest Missouri.
Already, Mountain Grove has started the season 5-0 with several good wins under its belt, including Springfield Catholic, Hartville, Dora and Strafford — all teams that are all either state ranked or off to a good start of their own.
Mountain Grove (5-0) was recently awarded the No. 2 seed in the annual Blue and Gold with games against Gainesville and Fair Grove on the horizon in the meantime.
On Tuesday, the Panthers put together a 66-63 win over Class 3 rival Strafford, a team with its own recent track record of playoff success.
“That was a hard-fought game and coach (Mike) Wilson does a great job,” Mountain Grove head coach Dune Hiler said. “That is a great group of kids, they are quick, athletic and hard to guard and eventually the whole thing turned into a free throw shooting contest and thankfully we shot free throws well enough to get out of it.
“I thought when we needed to we guarded and we rebounded. I didn’t think we did it particularly well in the first half, but I challenged them in the second half and it is frustrating but it is something that we have to work on.”
Mountain Grove is led by Carter Otwell, Cade Coffman and Conner McNew — three returning seniors who were all starters last year.
Also a football standout, Otwell is a four-year letterman who is a tough, hard nosed point guard and is among the area’s better defenders at the position. He is coming off an injury late in the football season but is getting back to his old form.
Coffman is a smooth shooting forward who brings good size at 6’4 and teamed with his brother last year but who has since graduated.
McNew is a 6’1 junior and a two-year starter who also brings experience to the court.
New to the varsity line-up is junior Dylan Massey, a 6’3 forward who suffered an injury in the Panthers’ first game of the season last year and missed the entire season.
“It is good to see him back and playing well,” Hiler said.
Also in the mix are Dawson Hiler, Hayden Newberry and Gavin Veach, a 6’3 senior forward.
“They really like each other and they have played together forever,” Hiler said. “When you play with people you like, good things happen.”