The Fulton Hornets have a new coach, Clayton Stewart, and there will be changes to how the team is run and its mentality.
Stewart, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, comes to Fulton from California, where he was an assistant coach for its softball team. While Stewart’s most recent coaching role was in softball, he was an assistant at two mid-Missouri boys basketball programs, Linn and Russellville.
Linn was where Stewart started coaching, and he made the Class 2A Final Four as an assistant with the Wildcats in 2000 — the most memorable moment of his coaching career.
“Making it to the Final Four at Linn with Jerry Buescher, he’ll tell you a self-proclaimed legend of basketball,” Stewart said. “That was interesting. Getting to play, getting to coach against Paul Miller from Blair Oaks who went on to Wichita State, all 6’7, 6’8 of him.”
While Stewart experienced success at Linn — the Wildcats made it to the Final Four again without him in 2008 — he decided to coach at Russellville since his newborn was getting ready to start school, and it was closer to home.
“That was a bittersweet thing knowing that the program that when I took over was able to go on there with Ryan Robertson from Fatima. He came over to Linn (and) took my spot when I went to Russellville,” Stewart said. “That was bittersweet. Congratulations to them, but it would’ve been nice to have had stayed there. But then again, I wouldn’t have been able to be there with my kid. So, sacrifices we make, right?”
Stewart picked up on coaching methods as an assistant under mid-Missouri basketball coaches who’ve experienced success in their careers, like Buescher, Dane Pavlovic and Brian Lee. According to Stewart, Pavlovic went on to coach at Columbia College, while Lee went down to Waynesville “a long, long time ago.”
“Just having been an assistant, you learn a lot of things: What to do, what not to do, how to work the officials,” Stewart said. “So I picked up on a lot and, of course, coaching against other Todd Uffman from Fatima, Ryan Fick from Blair Oaks, and I steal several things from other coaches and implemented into mine.”
Observing and applying the philosophies of said coaches, Stewart described himself as pragmatic and practical.
“I’m pragmatic in the sense that what I see and I like, I take,” Stewart said. “I’m practical in the sense that I base my offensive philosophies on what type of personnel I have. If we’re short and fast, then we’re going to be flying up and down the floor. If we’re big and tall and slow, then well, we won’t. To me, a coach is only a little bit better than their players. That’s my job as the coach to see what kind of personnel I have, to see what philosophies: fast, slow, zone, man. What are their positives? And work with those. Basically, just work with what you got.”
Elaborating on what’s pragmatic for him, Stewart shared that he “loves the fastbreak” but is also fond of putting the breaks on and showing composure offensively.
Defensively, Stewart instills in his players “that that’s where pride comes in.”
“You need to make sure you do your job,” Stewart said. “Try not to rely on help side. You do your job, take care of your role, guard your girl.”
Stewart explained he’s confident in improving upon Fulton’s 7-20 record last season.
“It should be easy to improve,” Stewart said. “I’ve been told that it’s 1,000 times better than what we had.”
As Grace Ousley graduated, the Hornets return four of their starters from last season. The Hedgpath twins, Jayna and Samantha, who started some games, chose to focus on softball since they’ll play collegiately for Lincoln University.
On the flip side, another Fulton softball player, Reagan Echelmeier, decided to play basketball after wrestling for the past two years.
“…quite possibly the most coachable student-athlete I have ever had,” Stewart said of Echelmeier. “She almost always has a smile on her face and gives 100 percent at every drill. …with college softball in her future, she opted for a little less contact sport. I am glad she is playing basketball this year.”
Fulton also brings back some players who played significant minutes last season.
“I have probably six, maybe returning starters altogether, who have started at one point, a game or two,” Stewart said. “So I’m looking forward to it. I think I have a pretty good group of girls and a little bit of depth. There’s a lot of teams that already being to the Montgomery County tournament seed meeting were saying that they lost this and lost that, and they’re struggling with point guards, and they don’t have depth.”
The Hornets received the No. 6 seed, while Montgomery County is No. 1, Hermann No. 2, Wellsville-Middletown No. 3, Clopton No. 4, New Haven No. 5, Mexico No. 7 and Bowling Green No. 8.
“Here I am thinking, ‘Well, you guys go ahead and underestimate because we’ve had a legacy of not good basketball on the women’s side for decades,'” Stewart said. “I mean, here and there, a couple of winning seasons, at championship in a tournament here or there, but I think probably other than at Montgomery County, have the most to work with (of the teams in the Montgomery County tournament).”
Describing what Stewart has to work with, he mentioned Fulton has good ballhandling in three or four girls, outside shooting in three or four girls, penetration ability in two or three girls and size in three girls.
“I’m comfortable with where I am now,” Stewart said. “We just got to get them to play together as a team and make sure they do their job.”
Kier Henderson, who made second-team All-NCMC last season, was the only Hornet to receive a postseason accolade a year ago.
“She’s awesome,” Stewart said of Henderson. “I like her. She’s a little pistol. I told her in summer league that I noticed that she was kind of on the reserve side, a little quiet, and I told her I pulled her to the side. I said, ‘You know, as a senior, typically senior and point guards are the leaders of the team.’ Vocal leaders who call out plays and chat and are just vocal. And I said, ‘But I noticed that you’re not really a vocal person, and I’m fine with that.’
“I told her that my daughter, who’s a senior in Russellville, she’s a post, and she’s the most vocal one. She’s the team leader, captain, who’s calling out plays and telling people, ‘watch out for a screen,’ and here comes this and that. So, it’s not critical that she be the verbal leader. Yet, she still does need to lead by example, which I have no doubt that she will do and that she’s been doing that. To further the point, she is actually since things have been rolling in our school season practice, she has actually become verbal, and it’s cool. I love it.”
Focusing on the team, Stewart mentioned what he felt were the team’s strengths.
“The strengths of the Fulton lady Hornets basketball right now is depth at every position and coachability,” Stewart said. “This team is tired of losing. The reputation of Fulton lady Hornet basketball is not impressive, and I’ve challenged them to make it impressive, to be a change. That’s been our motto is, ‘Be the change.’ And now it’s the ‘change has begun,’ and I’m leaving up the motto to them to figure out what the next phrase is going to be at the end of the year.”
Certain Hornets will have to rise to the occasion to be the change.
Outside of Henderson, Stewart mentioned Bre’Awn Richmond, Aubrey Fleetwood, Arianna Connor, Audrey Arnold, McKenzi Washington and Mackenzie Shock as standouts.
Richmond will play at power forward or center, and Stewart said she’s fast and is improving from last season.
“We still have some work to do as far as control and balance and shot selection, but they’re all progressing,” Stewart said of Richmond.
With Fleetwood and Shock, Stewart feels they’re great role players.
“Her energy is probably the most energetic one that I have out there,” Stewart said of Fleetwood. “She’s going 100 miles an hour somewhere. We don’t know where, but she’s going somewhere. But she’s also very vocal, very verbal. She does a great job of leading and and kind of being the glue of the team, kind of keeping everybody together and bonding and making sure we’re all on the same page. So she’s got the leadership skills in that sense.”
Connor will play at center, and Stewart explained she’s intelligent and coachable.
“She’s a sponge,” Stewart said of Connor. “She just wants to keep learning and get better and better and better. She’s a dadgum workhorse.”
Arnold and Washington are sophomores who are “gym rats,” according to Stewart. Both players are the daughters of women’s college basketball coaches: Arnold’s father, James Arnold, coaches at Columbia College, and Washington’s mother, Talisha Washington, at Westminster College.
All six names above have starting spots.
“They’re all going to have a starting spot,” Stewart said. “I just only have five spots to put them in. …depending on who we’re playing will depend on who I have starting. It’s not going to be the same five every game because I have that luxury where I have different personnel that can do different things and still outdo the other team.”
Regarding the North Central Missouri Conference, the most formidable opponent Fulton will face is Moberly, who went unbeaten in the NCMC last season, won the Class 4 District 8 title and made it to the state quarterfinals. Fulton finished fifth out of six teams in the NCMC, going 2-8 last season.
The Hornets were assigned to Class 4 District 8, and they have an entirely new group of teams in their district: Moberly (22-8 last season), Hallsville (15-13), Kirksville (14-13), Mexico (9-18) and Wright City (8-17).
Fulton opens its season against Belle at 5:30 p.m. tonight in Belle. Last season, the Hornets beat the Tigers 41-29 in the season opener.