After years of losing, Meadow Heights shows signs of turnaround

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

PATTON, Mo. -- It used to be if you didn't want to spoil a festive occasion, you dialed 1-800-PAN-THER.

For years, the Panthers of Meadow Heights have been the perfect homecoming opponent.

"We played four homecomings last year," senior forward Joe Jordan recalled. "Everybody wanted to play us for homecoming -- at least that's the way it seemed."

After this season, Meadow Heights might be removed from local homecoming Rolodexes.

Don't look now, but one of the area's most winning-deprived programs might have its first season in the black since 1989-90, a year after the Panthers went 24-7 and won district and regional titles under then-coach Sam Sides.

The two banners of that season hang alone on the Panthers' gymnasium wall as a reminder of a great year, but also the absence of any accomplishments since.

The past 11 seasons have been about as forgiving as a tight rim. During the 1990s, Meadow Heights trudged through two winless seasons and two two-win campaigns. The Panthers' record read 44-190 for the decade. Five coaches came and went.

Seeing the light

After a 4-18 season last year -- and another coach -- Meadow Heights might be near the end of the tunnel.

The Panthers stand 7-4 entering tonight's game at Leopold.

First-year coach Tom Brown, who helped revive programs at Marquand and Viburnum, is working his magic on the Panthers.

"You have to make them believe in themselves and have confidence in themselves," Brown said. "Sometimes the confidence is there, and it wasn't always that way. We have kids stepping up and taking pride in what they do."

The Panthers average nearly 70 points and stress defense, an area Brown targeted upon arrival.

Led by senior point guard Josh Mayfield, who averages 18.9 points, the Panthers thrive in an up-tempo game. The team has displayed a deep bench with nine different players having scored in double figures.

"This year you walk in the gymnasium and there's not a place to sit down," senior guard Cody Thompson said. "People are coming out to watch because we're winning. In the past, people weren't really interested in Meadow Heights basketball."

The players also are finding it more enjoyable. Brown recounted a player coming up to him during his team's 6-1 start and proclaiming, "This is fun!"

Undeterred by the past

The years of watching Meadow Heights' varsity struggle did nothing to deter the latest crop of players from pursuing the sport.

The school has had successful junior high and junior-varsity teams, but they didn't translate into wins at the varsity level.

Jordan, who relishes the chance to help turn the program around, said his senior group didn't lose a game in junior high, posting a combined two-year record of 25-0.

"We're just learning how to win, how to finish out a game and not lose," said junior guard Derik Collier. "I think we have to get it out of our minds that we're supposed to lose when we get to varsity."

The Panthers have been clearing hurdles. They opened the season as the sixth seed in the Woodland Tournament and fell to Advance in the championship game.

"We let people know we're not bad," Jordan said. "We stepped up."

U-High disappointment

The team was 6-1 when Mayfield sprained an ankle and was lost for the University High Christmas Tournament. What could have been a stage to showcase an improved team instead turned into another quick exit for the Panthers. Perennially a candidate for the tournament's 16th seed, Meadow Heights came in at No. 9. Even without Mayfield, they lost to No. 8 Scott County Central by only four points. They held a double-figure lead over Chaffee in the consolation round before slipping.

"I believe we should have been a four-night team," Brown said. "It's been our biggest disappointment."

But an overall sense of a rising program overrides the U-High setback.

Brown has his hands on the entire Meadow Heights program, coaching six teams -- fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, JV and varsity.

The eighth-grade team breezed through a 13-0 season and is a symbol of promise for the future.

Players throughout the program say that this is not a one-year blip on the radar.

"We're going to win for a long time," said sophomore Brad Adams, who splits time with the JV and varsity. "Our JV is good and we've got some tough junior high teams."

It already looks like teams no longer have the Panthers' number.

jbreer@semissourian.com

(573) 335-6611, extension 124

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