COLUMBIA — Their offseasons catapulted their individual successes, but their offseasons were far behind them at the Hickman boys basketball team's opening week of practice.
Guards Jimmy Whitt and Chris Clark led their team in pre-practice stretches from inside the center of players circled around them.
Hickman Boys Basketball
Class 5, District 9
Coach: David Johnson, fourth year
Last year's finish: 27-3 (third in Class 5 finals)
Key players: Junior G Jimmy Whitt, senior G Chris Clark, senior G Douglas Johnson, senior F Jordan Jones, senior G/F Devin Dudley, senior G/F Mason Murray
At the end of his summer on the AAU circuit with KC Run GMC, Whitt didn't have enough fingers to count the number of scholarship offers he had to play at major universities.
"When it's AAU season, I focus on AAU basketball," Whitt, a junior, said. "But now that it's Hickman season, Hickman's all that matters."
The lanky 6-foot-3 and soft-spoken Whitt sat and slowly rattled off the 13 schools already wanting his services before he begins his upperclass seasons. Missouri is one of them.
"I think this summer, more than any other summer, elevated my game to another level," he said.
He's quick to veer the focus away from himself, though. He's hoping, after all, that others might benefit from his offseason.
"Now, I can bring it into this season, and I can bring my team to another level, too," he said.
Meanwhile, Clark is heading into his senior season having verbally committed in September to play at UT-Martin. He will be signing his letter of intent after school Thursday.
"It actually puts pressure on me a little bit because I know that guys (guarding me) are coming at me (thinking), 'Oh, he's committed to a DI college, so I'm gonna attack him,'" Clark said. "I have to show them why I'm committed to a DI college and why I'm going where I'm going."
He has personal motivation, but Clark said he derives his primary motivation from the bar that last season has placed high.
"We know that we can do some better things this year," he said.
To outdo last season's 27-3 record and third-place finish at the Class 5 state tournament, the Kewpies will look to Whitt and Clark, their two returning all-state stars.
"They have an idea of what it's gonna take to get there," Hickman coach David Johnson said. "We know it's gonna be difficult. They had a taste of it, so I definitely think they'd like to have an opportunity to have that run again."
With Rivals.com tabbing him the No. 79 player in the nation from his class, Whitt is considered the top-ranked player his age in Missouri. Hickman hasn't seen a player garner as much attention since 2003 graduate and Kansas State recruit Lance Harris.
"Jimmy's probably one of the next best things that's come out of here," said Johnson in reference to all of Columbia.
When Johnson returned to coach at his alma mater four years ago, "there was not a college team sniffing in this gym," he said. Preseason workouts yielded a much different scene, he said, as Whitt has become a scout magnet.
"Being recruited myself and seeing other guys being recruited heavily, I've seen it affect them in many, many ways, some of it negatively, some of it positively," Johnson said. "Some of them put a lot of pressure on themselves to be successful, and they beat themselves up sometimes. Other guys thrive off of it. Jimmy's a kid that thrives off of it. He doesn't allow it to get to him. He's a very well-balanced kid. … He's just a normal kid."
Whitt first began playing organized basketball as a second-grader on Johnson's youth team. In some ways, Whitt hasn't changed, Johnson said.
"That willingness to be coached and to learn and to grow as a basketball player, to not be satisfied," he said. "He knows he can get better and better, and that makes him even more special."
Johnson said that same trait lives in Clark, the high-energy point guard who has been a captain for Hickman since he was a sophomore.
"Probably one of the more coachable kids I've ever had," Johnson said. "He loves his team, loves the program."
For however bright their careers seem post-high school, for however distracting the future may seem, the two can recall being with their team in the quiet locker room at Mizzou Arena after last year's semifinal loss. They had missed a chance to bring Hickman its first state title since 1962.
"We really felt that disappointment, and we’re carrying that to this year," Whitt said. "Knowing how we felt when we lost, that motivates us even more to get back to that spot and give ourselves a second chance."
They can remember winning their last game, the third-place game, and already looking to the future: their next season at Hickman.
"After that, we felt good because we knew we had weapons coming back the following year," Clark said. "We just knew we had a long journey ahead of us."
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.