The name on the front of the uniforms may say “Ozarks,” but for three members of the College of the Ozarks women’s basketball team, they may as well be donning uniforms for the Missouri Valley Magic.
Sophomores-to-be Annie Noah and Michelle Gabani will be joined by transfer addition Jordan Wersinger for the Lady Bobcats this season, and it’s fair to say they have a history together.
Since the fifth grade, the trio has suited up for the Missouri Valley Magic on the AAU circuit.
That’s about 7 years of summer workouts and practices, games and travels to tournaments throughout the Midwest.
“It’s just really nice to get that back,” Gabani said during a break in play at a recent youth camp at C of O. “Familiar faces help a lot, especially in college, when you are in a new situation.
“It’s nice, because on the floor, we have that dynamic.”
It hasn’t taken long for that dynamic to show itself again.
Gabani, a 5-foot-10 guard from Bolivar, and Noah, a 6-foot center who graduated from Lutie High School, played for the Lady Bobcats last season.
Gabani averaged 4.6 points and 3.3 rebounds in 33 games, while Noah played in 34 games and averaged 5.5 points and 3.7 rebounds.
Those two – and the C of O program as a whole – got a lift at about the midseason point of last season, when Wersinger left Central Missouri and decided to transfer.
The 5-foot-7 guard from Springfield Kickapoo played in six games for the Jennies, averaging 1.0 point per game in 5.8 minutes per appearance.
It wasn’t a good fit from the start, Wersinger said, and she left Central Missouri with no hard feelings on either side.
Noah said she saw something on social media about Wersinger moving out of her dorms, and things started clicking.
“Me and Michelle talked about it and decided we should tell her about C of O,” Noah said. “Then I told Coach (Becky) Mullis about it, and things just moved on from there. Now she’s here and we love to have her.”
Ask Gabani if it was a tough sell for her coach to take a look at Wersinger, and she has a quick answer: “No. She has seen her play before.”
Wersinger’s high school production at Kickapoo is well-known throughout the region. She scored nearly 1,400 career points, shot 40 percent from 3-point range, was a three-time pick for All-Ozark Conference and all-district, and a Class 5 all-state pick as a senior when the Lady Chiefs reached the state championship game.
It took about a week for Wersinger to set up a visit to C of O, and she committed the day after the visit.
Wersinger is taking classes at Ozarks Technical Community College this summer and will be a sophomore at C of O this season. But she’s been around her new teammates and working with them in scrimmages and impromptu workouts over the summer.
She also has helped out when the Point Lookout campus was flooded with players of all ages, attending girls’ basketball camp at the Keeter Gymnasium.
“It was a little nerve-wracking being here, it’s a whole new group and you’re the new kid, but so far, it’s been really welcoming,” Wersinger said.
“We’ve been scrimmaging quite a bit, and getting to know each other on the court. It’s been really good, and I’m excited about it.”
Actually, getting to know each other hasn’t been much of a process for the former AAU teammates.
After playing together regularly since about age 11, they know each other’s abilities and tendencies about as well as they know their own.
Noah talked about how quickly she and Wersinger fell into their old routines when stepping on the court together at C of O.
“It’s just like we’ve done since we were playing AAU,” Noah said. “I’ll get on the block and she’ll get me the ball, then cut and I’ll get it to her. Or I’ll make a move and she’ll camp out behind the line for a 3. It’s like we’ve never missed a beat.”
It’s been a relief for everyone involved.
“In college ball, you usually only play with someone for four years,” Noah said. “Now we’re going to be going on 12, so that will be awesome.”
For Wersinger, it was a perfect medicine after having her brief time at Central Missouri end after only a handful of games.
She is able to return to her roots, playing alongside some familiar teammates and getting back to her love of the game.
“It’s just like old times,” Wersinger said. “Pick-and-pop, pick-and-roll, all that stuff. It’s really nice. It’s so cool, and it makes me feel so much more comfortable out here.
“I’m new, but she helps me with things when we’re being introduced to new sets and stuff. It’s very comforting to have her out there.
“We have really good chemistry together, because we’ve been playing together from way back then. I think it will be good, and a good asset for the team.”
One thing missing from this summer’s work has been Gabani. She was diagnosed with mononucleosis during finals week in the spring and has been out of commission since then.
She said she was unable to swallow at one point and lost 10 pounds, but is looking at the bright side – that being out with illness starting in finals week in the spring is better than having it happen during the season.
When she returns to join her two former AAU teammates on the floor for the Lady Bobcats, it figures to only add to the familiarity among them.
Noah let out a laugh when asked if Mullis will have to do any “deprogramming” with the three of them – bringing their AAU habits into the college game.
“I think one of the great things about Coach Mullis is that she is always focusing on our strengths,” Noah said. “Then she makes us even stronger with the stuff that she wants us to do.
“That’s one of the things that is so great about this program. She focuses on your strengths, but also helps you with your weaknesses.”
The trio from the Missouri Valley Magic days will get a chance to make a significant impact for a C of O team that is losing one of the most-decorated senior classes in program history.
Kelsie Cleeton, Cass Johnson and Madi Brethower led the way for the Lady Bobcats, with a four-year record of 118-16, four consecutive trips to the national tournament and a basket full of all-conference, All-American, Scholar-Athlete and weekly awards.
Mullis is quick to point out that no one is expecting any of the returning or new players in the program to “replace” the decorated departing players, but there are opportunities for playing time.
“That was our opening meeting, in the spring with our returning players, and I will say that to our new ones, too, ‘You need to be you. You need to do what got you here and you don’t need to try to be anyone else,’ ” Mullis said.
“That’s unfair to ask out of anyone. They just need to be the best version of themselves.”