Cut the Jackson girls basketball team some slack if you see them peering warily in their collective rearview mirror.
The Indians have their work cut out for them if they plan on successfully defending their title in the Kelso Supply Holiday Classic, which begins today at the Show Me Center.
Notre Dame, Central and Saxony Lutheran are among the teams breathing down the Indians neck, which should make for some pretty good competition when the tournament tips off at 4 p.m. with eight local teams in action.
"I think the talent level is deeper this year than in the past," Jackson coach Tyler Abernathy said. "You look at Notre Dame, [Central], Saxony has a good young team -- I think you're going to see a lot more tighter ball games than last year."
Abernathy isn't conceding anything considering his team's 4-4 start to the season -- except for the tournament's top seeding, which went to once-beaten Notre Dame. He admits his squad has a different look after losing Connor King and Dru Haertling to graduation a year ago. But with the return of senior forward Emily Davidson from a hip injury, he also believes his squad is capable of repeating.
"That's our goal. Our goal is to win," he said. "We have to become better at handling pressure situations. It'll be interesting to see how we handle playing at the Show Me Center."
One team standing in the Indians' way is Notre Dame, which lost to Jackson in last year's final after winning the title the previous two seasons. The Bulldogs (5-1) already have defeated Jackson, Saxony Lutheran and Perryville, something coach Renee Peters believes will be beneficial when her team takes the court.
"I feel confident in my team," she said. "We've been able to see a few of these teams already, and we know what we need to do against them."
Count Peters among those who believe the title is up for grabs.
"There's eight teams, and four teams that could take the tournament," she said. "It'll come down to who executes their game plan the best. I think it'll be pretty competitive."
Central (4-2) claimed the second seed, and Shirrell is anxious to see how her Tigers are coming together after playing their last two games without four-year varsity player Chelsea Vinson, who had knee surgery last week and is out at least until February.
"Right now is real important," Shirrell said. "We're at that stage where we have to figure out who we are, and we'll be able to work against some good competition."
She added her three other seniors -- Alayah Cooper-Johnson, Bailey Kratochvil and Katie Williams -- have assumed leadership roles while other Tigers are stepping up in Vinson's absence.
"I think we're right there with every team," Shirrell said. "It's one of the most level playing fields in the area. I think we stack up well with all of them for the most part."
Saxony Lutheran (5-1) is seeded fourth with the Crusaders' lone loss to Notre Dame. Crusaders coach Sam Sides is excited to see how his freshman-dominated squad fares against the quality of competition.
"After we played Notre Dame, it helped our confidence even though they beat us," he said. "If we play well and do the things we're capable of doing, I think we should do OK."
Sides added his team needs to maintain its intensity and put pressure on the opponent to counter the Crusaders' lack of overall height.
"We're not very big," he cautioned. "We don't need to win the boards, but we need a stalemate on the boards. If we do that, I think we can compete."
Sikeston is the newcomer in this year's field, replacing Farmington.
The tourney field's talent level from top to bottom -- and the proximity of all the teams to the venue -- only adds to the excitement.
"I think this year more so than in the past," Shirrell said about the participants' equality. "And we've got all local teams right now. It's a good thing for us, and it's a good thing for the tournament.
"We've got an opportunity to play on a big court in front of some pretty nice crowds. We look forward to it every year."
2012 Kelso Supply Holiday Classic
4 p.m. -- (1) Notre Dame vs. (8) Scott City
5:30 p.m. -- (4) Saxony Lutheran vs. (5) Meadow Heights
7 p.m. -- (2) Central vs. (7) Sikeston
8:30 p.m. -- (3) Jackson vs. (6) Perryville
4 p.m. -- Notre Dame/Scott City loser vs. Saxony Lutheran/Meadow Heights loser
5:30 p.m. -- Central/Sikeston loser vs. Jackson/Perryville loser
7 p.m. -- Notre Dame/Scott City winner vs. Saxony Lutheran/Meadow Heights winner
8:30 p.m. -- Central/Sikeston winner vs. Jackson/Perryville winner
Noon -- Seventh-place game
1:30 p.m. -- Fifth-place game
3 p.m. -- Third-place game
4:30 p.m. -- Championship game