JEFFERSON CITY — Hickman guard Chris Clark quickly got rid of the ball most of the times it came his way. He even hesitated to get in shooting position after missing a few shots early in the game.
He was one step too many behind Will Echelmeier when the Rock Bridge sharpshooter cut past him along the baseline and curled to the top of the key on consecutive possessions early in the second half for an uncontested 3-pointer and a slightly shorter jumper. Clark only scored two points of his own.
Class 5, District 9 championship
Rock Bridge vs. Jefferson City
WHEN: 6 p.m.
WHERE: Jefferson City High School
Yet Hickman coach David Johnson kept Clark in for almost the entire game, a feat in itself for a freshman.
Clark’s season came to end when No. 4 seed Hickman lost 60-46 to top seed Rock Bridge on Tuesday night in the Class 5, District 9 tournament at Jefferson City High School. But Clark and three other starters will be back next year. He is looking forward to coming out of the shadows he fell into against Rock Bridge (21-4) and playing a main role in the program that Johnson, a first-year coach, hopes to build at Hickman (8-15).
“It is exciting,” Clark said. “I get to play with him for three more years. This was just a tune-up for me.”
It’s exciting for Johnson, too.
“Chris came in and did an outstanding job for us,” Johnson said. “He showed signs of being a freshman out there, but you can tell that he’s got game.”
At the beginning of the season, Johnson wasn't sure Clark, a ninth-grader at Oakland Junior High, would be ready for varsity basketball. Johnson had coached Clark on Midwest Sports Academy teams since Clark was in fifth or sixth grade and knew how he was disciplined and mature for his age, but playing with teammates who don't even go to the same school is hard.
"I kind of kept him down and thought we'd play him on the JV team," Johnson said. "He wasn't going to have any of that. He kept working and working, and it was obvious that he was ready."
Clark didn't know any of his older teammates, but senior Spenser Washington made him feel more comfortable. Washington included Clark in workouts and encouraged him to talk more on the court. Soon Clark "just became another part of the team," Johnson said.
"(Washington) was there all the time when I needed help or advice," Clark said. "He told me to learn how to be vocal because I came into the season not talking. I was shy and nervous."
In the Dec. 10 game against Staley High School, Clark didn't start because he was sick and missed practice earlier in the week. But he came off the bench and scored two baskets that Hickman needed to stay in the game. The Kewpies eventually lost by four, but Clark said it was the moment he realized he belonged.
His teammates noticed, too.
"We felt like he was older than a freshman," Washington said. "He played more like a junior."
Forward Ernest Dorema said Clark "is the most mature freshman I've seen around here — he can really handle the pressure."
Clark admitted to feeling nervous against Rock Bridge on Tuesday, though. Dorema reminded him that everyone messes up and to "stay cool," but until the fourth quarter he shied away from using his abilities. His only basket came with five minutes left when he rolled around a pick, received a baseline inbound pass and finished a layup.
Echelmeier, who was guarding him on that play, was surprised he didn't try to drive more. He had seen what Clark could do when Rock Bridge and Hickman played for the first time this season on Dec. 16.
"I had never even seen him until that first game," Echelmeier said. "He attacks really well, that's for sure. He also jumps really well. There were a couple times where we both went up (for a rebound) and he got above me by a couple of inches."
Hickman will lose senior leader Marcus Whitt and two key reserves in Washington and Crandon Cook, but the team should start acclimating to Johnson's system more, and it is looking forward to another talented freshman class that includes Whitt's younger brother, Jimmy.
"Coach said we've got a good nucleus. I don't know what that means," Dorema joked. "We've got a lot of players coming back, and I know Chris is going to be good."
Washington would have liked to beat Rock Bridge once in his high school career — the Bruins have won 18 straight against the Kewpies — but he will look forward to seeing if his underling, Clark, can help pull it off.
"They've got a lot of potential to beat them next year," Washington said. "They'll do much better than what we did this year because they'll have the offense in the system of Coach DJ by then."
Johnson pulled Clark aside a couple weeks ago and told him that he wasn't a freshman anymore and that he had to be ready "from here on out" to step it up. Even though he didn't play his best game against Rock Bridge, Johnson said he thought Clark did play a bigger role in the postseason, something he expects to carry over to next season.
"Chris is going to be a guy that’ll be a cornerstone of our basketball program," Johnson said. "His leadership will be critical. He's been in this situation now, so he knows what it feels like and what it's going to take to get there."