COLUMBIA — When Hickman's game against Fort Zumwalt West ended Friday night, Zumwalt quarterback T.J. Moe had compiled over 425 total yards and six touchdowns in his team's 54-15 hammering of the Kewpies.
Moe is a very talented player on a very good team, and the conventional wisdom in high school football is that strong teams with high-caliber players not only win, but win convincingly.
What is out of the ordinary is that, according to recruiting Web sites and state football rankings, Moe is the third-best player, and Class 6 No. 3 Fort Zumwalt West the second-best team, that Hickman has faced — in the past three weeks.
The Kewpies are 3-5 going into their second district game against Troy-Buchanan this Friday, but four of those losses have come against teams that are ranked in the top five in either Class 5 or Class 6 polls. Also, six of Hickman's opponents have featured players being recruited by Division I schools. Despite the losses, Hickman's coaching staff and players said that the experience their young team has gained by playing against the best competition in the state will prove valuable in the future.
It's hard to believe that there are players more highly touted than Moe. His performance against the Kewpies was near-perfect, and notably dominant. But that's just an indicator of how brutal Hickman's schedule has been thus far.
Two weeks ago, Hickman went to Gateway Tech and saw the nation's No. 1 defensive tackle prospect and Missouri verbal commit Sheldon Richardson in a game that ended in a 16-12 Kewpie victory. The week before the Kewpies hosted Class 6 No. 2 Rockhurst and Illinois quarterback recruit Nathan Scheelhaase.
"We're playing quality folks," said Hickman head coach Jason Wright. "It's always been that way and it's not going to change.
"The thing that separates this year is that the guys that we've been playing have one or two outstanding players."
Along with Richardson and Scheelhaase, Hickman has faced Timberland, the No. 2 team in Class 5, and its University of Wisconsin-bound running back Montee Ball. The Kewpies also opened their season against Liberty High School, which found its way into the top five in Class 6 last week (No. 5).
Hickman has always had quality teams on its schedule. Class 6's fourth-ranked Jefferson City Jays are a part of the Kewpies schedule every year and Hickman has played state power Rockhurstwhich has won seven state championships, each of the past five seasons.
The difference this season is that Hickman is facing traditionally lesser-known programs at their unprecedented peaks. Timberland went 10-2 last season, but it has started off this year 8-0, and in Ball's last season, the Wolves have what is probably their best chance to be competitive into the playoffs. And Fort Zumwalt West, which is in the middle of a steallar season, has not won a playoff game since the school opened its doors a decade ago. But with Moe's dominance that trend could be over.
For Wright, the challenge has been to use these experiences as a means to better his young players, rather than allowing big losses to tear down their confidence.
"We've had some transition, from (lack of a) locker room, to six new coaches," Wright said. "There's a lot of things contributing to the lack of success, not to mention all the young sophomores we're putting on the field. The thing is, what you have to do as a head coach and as a program is just keep the faith."
Many of Wright's young players are maintaining that faith, despite their lack of success. Several of the Kewpies know that playing against quality programs and quality recruits allows them to gauge both where they are in the landscape of high school football, and where they'd like to end up.
"It's where we wanna go," said junior quarterback Matt Herman. "It's good to see those teams early because down the road it lets you know, this is what we want to play like."
The experiences have also prepared the Kewpies for any level of player they could possibly see in the future. While members of the media were hyping up Moe's trip to Columbia last week, junior linebacker Josh Williams said after everything he's seen this year there was no reason to approach a game against Moe differently than any other.
"We look at it like it's a guy that's pretty good, just like every other team we've played," Williams said. "You know, considering our schedule and all the D-I's we've played, it was just another D-I."
The positive outlook that Wright's younger players have taken is just one of the many positive signs that he has pointing in the direction of success down the line.
"Do we like getting beat 54-15, 34-9, 41-0? No." Wright said. "But I think a year from now, two years from now, it's going to pay off."
"The future is bright. A lot of people don't know that, but the future is bright."