COLUMBIA — When Justin Jackson and Jim McNeil stand in the Hickman baseball field's third base dugout, the past rises behind them in an almost literal sense.
Class 4 state champions, a 28-2 record and a national ranking to end the 2005 season. Those accolades, along with the names of the players, coaches, team manager and the bat boys, are marked on the left half of a sign that stretches across the back of the dugout facing Providence Road, visible to both fans and passing drivers.
The first initials and last names of Jackson and McNeil, who are now Kewpies coaches, are among the list of players. As the Kewpies prepare for their latest run into the postseason, those two are a direct link to that team, using their experience to help guide the current squad.
Hickman coach Terry Whitney went against the 2005 Kewpies when he was coaching a few miles down the road at Rock Bridge. His Bruins played the Kewpies three times that year.
The first time, Rock Bridge was shut out, 8-0. The second matchup was closer though, with the Kewpies escaping with a 4-3 win when Andrew Mueller struck out two Bruin batters with the bases loaded in the seventh inning.
Five days later in the district semifinals, Hickman capped off the season series between the two teams with an 11-2 victory. In remembering that year’s Kewpies, who were coached by Dave Wilson, one thing immediately jumps to Whitney’s mind.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “That was one of the better hitting teams I’ve seen.”
Those are strong words from someone who’s been coaching baseball for more than 20 years and served as an assistant on the Hickman team that won the 1990 state title.
But when a team has a future Major Leaguer – Blake Tekotte, who has played for the San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox – batting third and hitting .529, with Jackson also hitting at a .500 clip in the cleanup spot, it doesn’t seem very far off. At the time, the Kewpies’ .376 team batting average placed them eighth all-time in the state record books.
That team could pitch, too. It threw two consecutive no-hitters at the beginning of the season, against John Cooper (Texas) and Southern Boone. The two pitchers who threw the most innings, Zach Heath and Steven Boyer, had 2.48 and 2.56 ERAs, respectively.
Hickman lost two games that year. One came against Blue Springs early in the season and the other against Smith-Cotton a few games before the district tournament.
However, once the Kewpies squeaked past Helias to win the district championship, they rarely gave any opponent a chance. Two of their sectional games ended because of the mercy rule and the state championship, against DeSmet, ended up being a 17-7 blowout.
When coach Dave Wilson sat down with each individual player during the preseason to talk about expectations and goals, he kept hearing about a state title. So from batting practice and warmups, through each inning of every game, the focus and belief was on winning.
Try to win every inning like they’re separate games. Focus on getting better every day and dealing with failure positively. Believe that you’re never out of a game and that every pitch and batter matters.
Those are some of the lessons Jackson and McNeil communicate to the current bunch of Kewpies. It sounds like list of common sports clichés, but you can call up examples for the value of every one.
The 2005 Kewpies outscored their opponents decisively in almost every inning that year, including a 49-5 margin in the third. The only one in which they were beaten was the seventh, where opponents scored 15 to their 14. But that’s partly due to the fact that so many of Hickman’s wins were cut short due to the 10-run mercy rule.
Wilson recalls multiple members of the team being tireless workers, constantly trying to improve themselves and everyone around them. He remembers Jackson helping out with the team even while he was a middle schooler and McNeil as someone who “wanted to help just about anybody in life.”
“Those guys, they just didn’t come to the two hour, two-and-a-half hour practice and they were done,” Wilson said about the team. “I mean, they wanted to improve. If one of them had an 0-for-4 night, you know, they’re ready to, you know, stay after practice and get more batting practice.”
And despite what its record suggests, that group had to do its share of fighting to stay in games.
Hickman took an 8-1 lead in the state semifinals against Lee’s Summit, but the Tigers reeled off seven unanswered runs to suck the air out of the Kewpies’ dugout.
But they knew they just had to win one more inning, and the three runs Hickman scored in the top of the seventh sent the team on. When the Kewpies trailed 6-5 against Desmet, the same approach saw them score 12 runs in the last three innings to win decisively.
For all its wins, though, what truly distinguished that Hickman squad was how it united as a team.
“You could tell, even when playing against them, how tight-knit they were … and how they were not selfish at all,” Whitney said.
The team had 17 seniors, many who had grown up playing together, some better than others, united both by wins and losses, all willing to adjust their roles for the good of the team. If one would fail, another would step up. The togetherness of that team sticks with the people who played on it, and Jackson and McNeil still use it to motivate players today.
“They bring it up quite a bit, because they just want us to be like one group together,” sophomore Jacob Litteken said.
As this year’s team prepares for postseason play, they will hope to emulate that squad as closely as possible. You can definitely see some parallels: The Kewpies have nine seniors, most of which start and have previous varsity experience, and from observing them in practice and games, it’s apparent that they get along pretty well.
They are also extremely solid offensively, having scored 10 or more runs in six straight games in late April. They have a future Division I player — junior catcher and Louisville commit Colby Fitch — batting leadoff and spearheading the order.
The tools and the momentum — Hickman has won seven of its last eight games — are there to make a run. And whatever craziness the postseason may present, they’ll know how to approach every game.
One inning at a time.
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.