COLUMBIA -- The Sikeston Bulldogs' Class 4 semifinal opponent is certainly no stranger to the state final four.
The Ozark Tigers, under the direction of seventh-year head coach Steve Hunter, have made the state semifinals four times in the last six years, including a state championship run in 2003.
This is Ozark's seventh trip to the state semifinals in school history. The Bulldogs, on the other hand, are making just their second trip. They last made it in 1995 when they took fourth.
While this year's Ozark team is fairly young, they pose quite a tall challenge for the Bulldogs, literally when the two teams meet at Mizzou Arena at 12:10 p.m. tomorrow.
Ozark (21-9) offers up a front line that will be the tallest the Bulldogs have seen to date.
The Tigers start 6-foot-8 and 6-7, but they also can bring 6-9 and two 6-5 players off the bench.
By comparison, Sikeston's tallest player on the entire team is 6-4 freshman Michael Porter.
Sikeston coach Gregg Holifield said Ozark's players aren't just tall, but they are skilled.
"I know their coach and he does a great job and he's going to have them well-organized," said Holifield, who is in his eighth year as Sikeston's coach. "They will play hard and smart in everything they do. Their post game is really good. They're 6-8 and 6-7 and they bring 6-9 off the bench. They can play and they're good around the basket. Their guards can pass it, catch it and handle it well. They have a lot of options offensively. Overall, the people I've talked to are very complimentary of their team."
Hunter actually had the opportunity to witness the Bulldogs in action in person in last Saturday's 62-54 quarterfinal win against St. James.
He came away impressed.
"They're very athletic with shooters and size," said Hunter. "I'm really concerned about their guard play with their quickness and athleticism. We're athletic too but not like they are. Our defensive transition is what we're concerned with. Inside I think we're pretty equal. We might have more height but they're better athletes."
Ozark's top player is 6-8, 200-pound junior Tyler Oakley, who averages 16.2 points per game and 10.2 rebounds per game.
Alongside Oakley in the paint is 6-7 junior Cody Menzies, averaging 7.5 ppg and 3.8 rpg.
Josh Singh, a 6-9 junior is the top post player off the bench, averaging 6.5 ppg and 3.0 rpg.
Sikeston (22-6) has played one team with nearly the same kind of height.
"That's comparable size to Jackson," said Holifield of his SEMO Conference rivals. "We're just going to have to try to work as hard as we can on them. Probably double-down in post situations when they receive the ball down there and use our speed and quickness as much as we can."
Ozark's guards aren't particularly tall, but they are solid athletes.
Jordan Hilton, a 6-0 junior is second on the team in scoring at 10.8 ppg. Juniors Will Hogan and Morris Berger average 7.5 and 4.0 ppg. Hogan is the team's deadliest 3-point threat, canning 49 on the season. Brett Walster is the team's biggest guard at 6-2, 200 pounds. He averages 7.4 ppg and 4.3 rpg with 34 3-pointers this year.
Ben York, a 6-2 senior guard, will also see some playing time off the bench.
Hunter indicated that one of his post players, 6-5 sophomore Chase Ruble, won't play due to injury.
"I don't think we lose too much when I got to the bench," said Hunter. Holifield said the Tigers, despite their size, like to get out on the break on offense.
"They push the ball, they run a controlled break and they get the ball out and do a good job offensively with that," said Holifield. "Their post players run the court extremely well. They're really good at that. It could possibly be an up-
tempo game if that's the case."
He also said that his team will have to be more efficient on offense due to Ozark's massive size in the paint.
"Offensively we're going to have to have good shot selection," said Holifield. "We've got to be patient with the basketball and get the shots that we're looking for. We've got to be able to hit the mid-range jumpers. We've spent a lot of time the last month on that, getting ourselves in position to hit the 12 to 15 foot mid-range jumpers. We're going to have to use our quickness to get some cutting action offensively. Hopefully we'll get some open looks that way."
Following Sikeston's game with St. James, a few of the Bulldog players caught Hunter's eye.
Porter leads the team with 15.3 ppg and 7.2 rpg. Junior Julian Beard follows up with 13.4 ppg and 4.0 rpg. Senior point guard Kash Bratcher, who averages 10 ppg and leads the team with 37 3-pointers, is the third player Hunter will look to contain.
"Obviously their big kid (Porter) is a handful inside," said Hunter. "We need to take care of the point guard (Bratcher) and keep him from penetrating. Those are probably the two I would zero in on. They have a good shooter (Beard) on the outside so we need to keep an eye on him."
Bulldog senior Rod Moore averages 11.8 ppg and 5.8 rpg. Junior Isaac Porter follows up with 8.0 ppg and 4.4 rpg. He leads the team in assists and steals.
Ray Rodgers, who had a huge game against St. James with 13 points, Blake Taylor, Cortne Beasley and Josh Porter all see playing time off the bench.
Ozark comes into the game with nine losses, but all nine have come to schools with very strong basketball programs.
"We schedule people that we know are tough -- our record isn't great, but I think that helps prepare us for this stretch run," said Hunter. "This is our last year in Class 4. Our area is growing so much."
Ozark will move up to Class 5 next season with an increase in enrollment.
Sikeston has won 13 straight games, but Ozark will likely be favored in the matchup.
It's a label that Holifield says his team is used to after playing in Cape Notre Dame's shadow for most of the season.
"We've been in that position a lot this year," said Holifield. "I think it gives our kids some drive to prove people wrong and hopefully that'll be the case Friday. We're just going to have to go out and play our game and play as well as we can to beat them. I think our kids have handled things well all year. They're focused and they have worked hard all year. They have a great team concept and attitude about them. I'm sure they'll get in there and handle the situation well."
The Borgia Knights (28-1) and the Lincoln Prep Tigers (28-1) enter this year's semifinal round as the prohibitive favorites as both have the field's most sparkling records.
Borgia, based in Washington, features Miami (OH) signee Alex Moosman, who averages 23.8 ppg while Lincoln Prep is led by senior guard Domonique Johnson, averaging 19.6 ppg.
Borgia is known as a perimeter shooting team, but offers up plenty of size in the paint with a pair of 6-5, 200-pound forwards.
Lincoln Prep is an athletic team out of Kansas City with tremendous size as well. Brandon Coleman, a 6-5, 250-pounder and Greg Smith, 6-7, 230, are the most dominant players inside.
The Tigers also have 6-3, 220-pounder DeMarco Cosby.
But Holifield said Ozark comes in with a reputation as respected as these two powerhouses.
"The people I've talked to that have seen all the teams play think Ozark's as good as any of them," said Holifield.
"The team we're playing, no doubt about it, on a given night is as good as any team in the final four."
Borgia and Lincoln Prep will play after Sikeston Friday at 1:45 p.m.
The championship game will be played on Saturday at 1:45 p.m. The third place game is scheduled for Saturday at 10:35 a.m.