Chris Foster has a retooled roster as he begins his second season at head coach of the Drury Panthers. Drury is 2-1 entering its Thanksgiving Classic, next Tuesday and Wednesday, at O’Reilly Family Events Center. (Photo: Drury Athletics)

Chris Foster’s assignment in his first season as Drury University’s men’s basketball coach was going to be difficult enough as he took over the storied program from retiring Missouri Sports Hall of Famer Steve Hesser.

Then about everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Seven different players in the regular rotation missed a combined 26 games due to illness and injury. Foster, himself, missed all of December with illness.

“They wouldn’t even let me listen to games or watch film or anything that might elevate my stress level,” Foster said, crediting assistants Chris Carr and Ben Fisher for running the program — including a key recruiting period — during his absence.

“It was tough. It was tough on everybody, not just me,” Foster said of the season. “I’m thankful for the support we had through it all. It was an opportunity for all of us to learn and grow, to take some of those lessons and take them with us.”

Drury, the 2013 NCAA Division II national champion, finished a non-Drury-like 10-16. When the new season began last week, the Panthers’ retooled roster had 13 newcomers and only three returnees.

About Chris Foster

Hometown: Ironton, Missouri

College: Played guard at Northern Iowa, 2003-07

Head coaching career: Foster is 129-97 in his ninth season as a collegiate head coach and owns an 80-65 mark within the Great Lakes Valley Conference. His 2018 Truman State team was the co-West Division champion in the league. Foster arrived at Drury from McKendree, where he led the fellow Great Lakes Valley Conference program for three years. In 2020-21, he guided the Bearcats to their best finish ever in the GLVC as McKendree went 10-8 in the conference and ended the year in fourth place overall. The previous season, Foster put together the program’s first-ever above .500 season at the NCAA-II level as the Bearcats went 15-13 and 10-10 in the conference.

Family: Chris and wife Kylie have three children – son Jase (14) and daughters Avery (11) and Riley (6).  

Panthers outlook is promising

So far, the outlook for the new-look Panthers is promising. Drury is 2-1 headed into its DoubleTree Thanksgiving Classic next Tuesday and Wednesday at O’Reilly Family Events Center. Southwestern Oklahoma State and Arkansas Tech will be opponents on those nights.

After taking the Panthers’ season-opening 80-61 victory over Northwood last weekend, this is going to be a fun team to watch. Foster, a former standout guard at Northern Iowa from 2003-07, has his team playing at a brisk pace and shooting plenty of 3-pointers. Drury had made 31 of 77 threes (40 percent).

“We have depth, we have a lot of shooting and skill,” Foster said. “It’s been an extremely fun group to coach, and I’m looking forward to seeing their progress. It’s really an unselfish group of guys and that will give them the ability to continue to improve.”

Foster knew after last season that there would be a major overhaul, with the desire to bring in new players combined with the decision by players to seek transfers. He went about the process with a plan of mixing some experienced transfers with promising youngsters.

“We knew we were going to be young. Even a couple of the transfers we took are younger guys,” he said. “We wanted to bring guys in that had skill. That was a big thing for us — plus really high-character guys. I’m happy with the group we have.”

Riley Naeger, one of the three returning Panthers, is averaging 13.7 points. Auburn graduate transfer guard Preston Cook, who played in the Final Four two years ago, is at 12.3 points.

Another transfer from within the Great Lakes Valley Conference, senior forward Adam Moore, came in from Quincy. The 6-foot-6 Moore has skills, in the paint or on the perimeter.

“He’s one of those guys who understands what it takes at this level,” Foster said of Moore. “Some of the DI transfers, it’s hard because they don’t know a lot about the Division II level. Adam has that knowledge of being in the league. His leadership has been great for us. 

Illness and injury affected Drury in Chris Foster’s first season as head coach with the Panthers finishing 10-16. (Photo: Drury Athletics)

“He’s a guy that really fits our style of play with his size and skill.”

So is Cook, who played in 38 games off the bench during his career at Auburn. But the 6-foot-4 guard’s playing time was limited, and he sought a bigger role for his final season of eligibility.

“He was in the transfer portal, and we reached out and got him on a visit,” Foster said of Cook. “We’re so fortunate to have such a great university and unbelievable basketball arena and such a tradition in our program that we feel like if we can get guys on visits, we have a pretty good shot.”

Cook graduated from Auburn last December with a degree in Exercise Science. He was on the Southeastern Conference academic honor roll.

“We got him out here and his family on a visit,” Foster said. “It was an opportunity he was looking for to have a bigger role. Certainly, the need we had to find some experience and leadership at the guard spot was there.”

Settling into Springfield

As Cook and the other newcomers continue to acclimate themselves to a new locale, Foster looks forward to a more healthy season No. 2 while also settling into a community he visited once a season as a player at Northern Iowa.

While he was recruited by Sam Weaver out of southeast Missouri to UNI, he wound up playing four years for Greg McDermott, who remains his coaching mentor. Foster was a big part of the program’s growth into a Missouri Valley Conference contender during his time there, with NCAA Tournament berths in 2004 and 2005.

He recalls some memorable games against Missouri State, often reminiscing about those times with former Bears Robert Yanders and Terrance McGee. 

“They had some really good teams with coach (Barry) Hinson,” Foster said. “Just a lot of good memories and a lot of good battles. Most of them in Springfield weren’t very pleasant, but it’s fun to sit back with some of those guys and reminisce about those times.”

Now he wants to help his players make new, lasting memories at Drury much as McDermott helped him make in his playing days.

“We have a young team,” Foster said. “We just have to worry about getting better every time we step out here and we’ll see where we end up.”

Upcoming Drury home games

Nov. 22 – vs. Southwestern Oklahoma State, 7:45 p.m.

Nov. 23 – vs. Arkansas Tech, 7:45 p.m.

Nov. 28 – vs. Missouri S&T, 7:45 p.m.

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, co-hosts The Sports Reporters on Jock 96.9 FM, 99.9 FM and 1060 AM on Monday mornings with Ned Reynolds and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton