COLUMBIA — A season that ends with a loss to your rival can sting, maybe for a few days, a couple weeks. But when that loss is the 18th straight against your local rival, the sensation is less akin to a sharp sting than a dull, persistent pain — the kind that can only be relieved by putting an end to the streak.
Such is the position of the Hickman boys basketball team, whose 18-game losing streak to Rock Bridge dates back to the 2004-05 season. Hickman, which finished its season at 8-15, was eliminated from postseason play two weeks ago with a loss to Rock Bridge (24-4) in the district semifinal. The Bruins won the game 60-46. In recent years, the programs have been marked by some key differences, such as the spell of coaching changes that have taken place at Hickman over the past five seasons. While the Bruins continue their run through the postseason, those on the Hickman side can only watch and wait until next year, when they will have the opportunity to see that 18 doesn’t turn into 19 or 20.
A revolving door
Though a few games have been close in recent seasons, such as Rock Bridge’s narrow 72-70 win over Hickman last year, most have not. In the last 10 meetings between the teams, Rock Bridge’s average margin of victory is a shade over 15 points per game.
“It’s certainly not been in our favor the last five years,” Hickman coach David Johnson said.
Johnson believes the lack of coaching stability at Hickman has hindered the program’s success — against Rock Bridge and as a whole.
“If you don’t have that continuity in whatever you’re doing, athletics or anything, success is not going to come as easily as you want it to,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be hard if you’re always dealing with changes.”
And change has been the norm. After Jim Sutherland retired in 2006 after 10 seasons as Hickman coach, the Kewpies have had three different coaches in the past five years — Kenny Ash from 2006-09, John Burns last season and Johnson this season. Marcus Whitt, a senior guard, has played for all three.
“It’s kind of difficult because different coaches have different styles,” he said. “You get comfortable with one, and then you have to change.”
Ash is now the basketball coach at Kirksville. Burns departed after last season to take a coaching job in Arizona. Johnson, who accepted the job last June, is a Hickman alum with a previous coaching stint with the Kewpies from 1993 to 1995. He has a clear objective for the direction of the program — an objective congruent with Rock Bridge's formula.
“Consistency and continuity are the ultimate goal,” he said. “We want kids to come in and know what my expectations and philosophies are as far as player development and being a student athlete.”
On the south side of town, the Rock Bridge boys basketball program has been the epitome of coaching continuity. With the exception of a four-year hiatus from 1999 to 2003, Jim Scanlon has coached the Bruins every season since 1984.
Ash has strong ties to both the Hickman and Rock Bridge programs. In addition to coaching at Hickman from 2006-09, he played at Rock Bridge under Scanlon in the late-1980s. He believes the Rock Bridge program has flourished under Scanlon’s stable presence.
“He’s one of the state’s best coaches, and he’s had a lot of success,” Ash said. “He has over 600 career wins, so that says enough.”
Ash noted the contrast between Rock Bridge’s continuity at the top and Hickman’s lack thereof, describing the Hickman job in recent years as “a revolving door.”
Though the Rock Bridge coaching staff was busy in preparation for the tournament and unavailable for comment, Jennifer Mast, the athletic director at Rock Bridge, said that lately, coaching stability and some fortune have favored the Bruins in the rivalry. An edge in size has favored them as well.
“We’ve had a height advantage over them,” she said. “Even though the team’s been more guard-oriented this year, we’ve had the advantage.”
Even in a year in which Rock Bridge played with more guard-heavy lineups, Rock Bridge’s frontline of Karon Hayes and Austin Ray — 6’5” and 6’6”, respectively — was bigger than Hickman’s starting frontcourt. As significant as a height advantage can be, an advantage in talent level can be just as dynamic. During his three seasons as Hickman coach, Ash said there was no shortage of talent at Rock Bridge.
“They had several Division I athletes on coach Scanlon’s teams the past five or so years,” he said.
Ash added that this group includes Ricky Kreklow, a former Rock Bridge standout and current MU basketball player. Kreklow won the Mr. Show-Me Basketball award in 2010, an honor presented to the top high school basketball player in Missouri.
"A tough job"
Both Ash and Johnson expressed that the Hickman coaching job presents particular challenges.
“Hickman’s a tough job,” Ash said. “You’ve got a lot more variables that take place at Hickman than at other places I’ve coached at before.”
“There are the variables as far as what goes on with peer pressure and outside influences on the kids,” he said. “Sometimes you’re managing more than you’re coaching.”
Although Ash was hesitant to elaborate on the variables at Hickman, he said the district’s boundary lines for the high schools have long been a point of contention with Columbia high school athletics. There are set boundaries for who can attend Hickman and Rock Bridge, but there are ways around these, he said. Still, each basketball program carries its own appeal.
“The Rock Bridge program has been very successful since the late '70s, and since Scanlon got there in the mid-'80s, the program has seen some of its greater accomplishments,” he said. “Even with that said, the Hickman name still carries some clout in Missouri with it being one of the largest schools in the state.”
Of course, both student bodies at Hickman and Rock Bridge won't be as large as they are for long. Once Battle High School opens in 2013, Columbia’s student population will become divided three ways instead of two, and Hickman and Rock Bridge will have smaller pools of student athletes to draw from for all sports.
Six more Kewpie basketball players will graduate this spring without having notched a victory over their rival. To Johnson, this means an offseason of preparation for returning Hickman players that will include team camps — something he could not organize last summer because he was not the head coach until June. In addition to the team camps, strength training, open gyms, camps and summer leagues are all in the offing.
Building a program into a consistent force cannot be done in a day, a week, even a season. Likewise, getting to a point where Hickman can challenge a program of Rock Bridge’s status may be a few years in the making, especially considering the amount of talent Rock Bridge will return next season. Three starters from this year’s Bruin team will be back, along with some key reserves who logged significant minutes this season. For Hickman, the time commitment needed to improve individually — and as a program — is something Johnson has tried to emphasize to his players.
“I think a lot of the athletes today are wanting things a little too fast instead of understanding that it doesn’t happen right away,” he said. “I think instant gratification is expected rather than a process.”
Johnson does not always sound like a high school basketball coach. At times he seems to channel an inner psychologist or social critic in his assessments of young athletes and youth culture. But when it comes to ending the 18-game skid against Rock Bridge, he morphs back into the coach, refusing to dwell on the past.
“The only thing that matters is the next game,” he said. “That’s where I’m at in this stage.”