Defending state champions jump out to early big lead for 10th straight district title

Climax Springs ran into a machine Friday night in the championship game of the Class 1 District 7 Tournament at Southwest Baptist University. 

While the Cougars were in search of their first district championship since 2004, this machine was in search of its 10th straight district title as part of a run that includes four state championships, six state final appearances, seven Final Fours and nine state quarterfinal appearances in the past decade.  

Walnut Grove, the defending Class 1 state champion and number two ranked team in the state in the latest Missouri Basketball Coaches Association poll, played like a defending state champion in a 67-27 win over the Cougars in Bolivar. 

“They sped us up and we played very scared and very timid,” Climax Springs coach Ron Rhodes said, noting there may have been an intimidation factor in play. 

“We wanted to slow them down, but they were better than we were. They sped us up and we played right into their hands. Early on we missed a lot of easy shots, a lot of shots we should have made to make it competitive and then you never know what happens.”  

Well, it was also not as if the Tigers just let the Cougars waltz right to the basket. Walnut Grove brought relentless fullcourt pressure from the start forcing six turnovers in the first quarter, 14 by halftime and a total of 20 by the end of the game.  

Both teams actually started somewhat sluggishly as Climax Springs scored the first points of the game nearly three minutes in and Walnut Grove did not score until nearly half the quarter was over. But after trailing 2-0 early on, Walnut Grove scored settled in and scored 13 unanswered points that turned into a 16-4 lead by the end of the first quarter. Things did not get any easier for Climax Springs, either, as the lead extended to 38-11 by halftime

“We never did shoot the ball well tonight and it was because of Walnut Grove’s defense. It was not because of us,” Rhodes noted. “Give them a lot of credit, I would not be shocked if they did not win back-to-back championships.” 

That may very well be the case and it certainly helps to have the reigning Class 1 Player of the Year on the floor in junior Faith Gilkey. The sharpshooting junior led the Tigers with 33 points on the night and scored the 2,000th point of her career in the process. Returning All-State junior Makayla McVay also fueled the win with 18 points of her own.  

Climax Springs was led by junior Autumn Wallace with 19 points and sophomore Maranda Burke added four points of her own. The season ends at 19-9, but the good news for the Cougars is that nearly every player is returning. One who is not is senior C.J. Dake and Rhodes wishes her career could have ended much differently. 

“She had a great career at Climax. Basketball, softball, she does it all,” the coach noted. “It was really sad to see how she had to end her career, but she is a tough kid. She will bounce back, she’ll have surgery here in the next couple of weeks or so and hopefully get that ACL healed up. She is more into rodeo and barrel racing and stuff like that. That is her love and hopefully she’ll be able to do that.” 

For the rest who return, Friday night’s game against a defending state champion should be as good a measuring stick and stepping stone as any for a team that is looking to take the next step. 

“We should be better next year just because we are a year older and if everybody has a good summer and works, we can improve quite a bit. Then again, Walnut Grove is not losing anybody either,” Rhodes said. 

“They (Climax Springs) has to learn they cannot play scared. They have to get out there and just play the game… I’m not trying to say we can play with Walnut Grove, but we could have competed a lot better than we did tonight.” 

Now, it is simply time to get back to work and make those improvements. 

“I appreciate the kids seven kids I have,” Rhodes said. “They work hard and can’t wait until next year.”