By Matt Turer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Rolla Bulldogs head coach Mark Miller hasn’t been a stranger to success over his 13-year tenure with the program, winning district titles in 2012, 2015, 2018 and 2020 and posting winning records in each season from 2011-2019.
That success means that Bulldogs fans should probably get more than a little bit excited about how he described his 2020-21 group.
“I think this is one of the best teams I’ve ever had,” Miller said. “These guys are good. We’ve got size. We’ve got speed and quickness. We’ve got shooters everywhere. And now we’ve got experience too.”
Despite coming home with a district title, experience is something last year’s Bulldogs didn’t have. That lack of experience is part of the reason the program finished with its first losing record (12-17) in a decade.
“They weren’t ready last year,” Miller said. “They were being put in spots where they were inexperienced. We struggled throughout the season and definitely put it together down the stretch and started playing better. We’ve had an extremely good summer/fall that we’ve had a lot of success in, so I’m looking forward to a strong season.”
Rolla graduated four seniors and a pair of starters last season, including an All-Ozark Conference defender in Colby Shivers.
But the Bulldogs bring back All-OC First Team selection Trey Brown (Sr., 6’6”), who’s expected to eclipse 1,000 career points this season. Brown comes off a junior season that saw him lead Rolla with 12.0 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. Brown will be one of two Bulldogs captains this year along with senior Danny Foster (6’5”), who averaged 10.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game in 2019-20.
“We have guys that can really put it in the hole,” Miller said. “We have shooters a lot of the time, but I don’t know that I’ve had this many kids that can light it up. I sure hope we get to play because we have very high hopes.”
The Bulldogs bring back four other seniors in Evan Colench (6’2”), Connor Joyce (6’1”), Patrick Blair (6’1”) and Ezra Sheffel (6’1”).
Joyce played in 23 varsity games last season, and Bulldog fans in the stands who are there to see some dunks need to keep an eye and a phone on Sheffel, who attacks and dunks with ease.
Colench was Rolla’s leading JV scorer as a junior in 2019-20, and Miller is excited about his transition to a full varsity role.
“We play in a fall league in Jeff City and he was tearing people up,” Miller said. “He can attack you off the dribble and get there and finish. If he’s not our best 3-baller, he’s close.”
Also returning for the Bulldogs are Gage Klossner (Junior, 5’8”), Adam Hounsom, Chase Lindsey (Junior, 6’3”) and Ty Locklear (Junior, 5’10”).
Rolla welcomes a move-in from the St. Louis area in Keyshawn Fannon and a pair of varsity newcomers in sophomore Luke Foster (6’4”) and freshman Isaac Buhr. Buhr is the younger brother of former all-stater Alec Buhr.
“The thing about these guys is they’re so much fun to coach,” Miller said. “I’ve had good teams before, but this bunch is so unselfish. They’re all just great friends and very coachable. I feel like we can contend for everything we set our sights on. Obviously Kickapoo is stacked, so that’s a super-strong team. Are we going to have trouble competing? I don’t think so. We’ll find out pretty early in that Republic Tournament.”
The Republic Tournament starts November 30. Rolla will jamboree November 19.
If the COVID-19 pandemic rears its head at any point during the season, Miller feels good about his team’s ability to respond.
“I wouldn’t feel bashful about playing any of these guys if COVID becomes an issue and we’re down a couple of guys,” Miller said. “I feel confident in going 12-13 deep with quality varsity basketball players.”
Rolla adds what will be an important new voice to the bench in assistant coach Josh Vinyard. Vinyard has 11 years of head coaching experience in Missouri at Hermann and Owensville.
“I’ve known [Vinyard] for 15 years,” Miller said. “I’ve tried to get him on my staff for a while now, and this was perfect timing.