It took Hickman’s Taylor Florence about 1 1/2 quarters to give Kewpies fans a reason to be optimistic about the next three seasons.
In the first half of his first varsity game, Florence, a 5-foot-7 sophomore reserve point guard, stood dribbling the ball near half court, waiting for something to happen. When nothing did, he got creative.
Florence slid by his defender with a nifty crossover, gave a hard fake pass to the wing and converted a driving layup.
“I would have to say (flash) is a part of my game,” he said.
Part is the key word in that statement because, as Hickman coach Jim Sutherland would attest, Florence has a more important intangible going for him.
“He has a passion to play, and more importantly, he has a compassion to compete,” Sutherland said. “He’s a good athlete, he’s got adequate skills as a sophomore; those skills are going to improve. But the one thing you can’t give somebody is a passion to compete; he loves to compete. And when you have that you’re going to be pretty good at anything you do.”
The Kewpies (2-2) host Jefferson City at 7:30 tonight.
It’s going to take some time for Florence to be as good as he wants to be. As is the case for many young point guards, he is working out several kinks, including cutting down on turnovers and improving his jumper. He says his free throw shooting could use some more time, too.
Fortunately, the player starting ahead of him, junior Michael Washington, is doing his best to provide plenty of guidance.
“He’s young and he’s going to make some mistakes,” Washington said. “Usually coach just tells me to be there, be like his second coach and just tell him what the right thing to do.”
The thing about Washington is that he is quite young. A severe right ankle sprain set him back early last season, and he played sparingly, averaging 1.5 assists and one point in four games.
Sutherland said both players have demonstrated a discipline far beyond their years.
“It’s not OK for them just to be OK,” he said. “They’re going to work at their game; they both have asked for game tape and taken it home and looked at it after games. I’ve had seniors that weren’t interested in doing that, and yet these two guys want to do that.”
Washington and Florence are close off the court and have been friends for at least the past two years, but Florence said this is the first time they have played together. Both say competing against the other in practice has helped their games blossom.
“It’s competition, but that’s expected,” Florence said. “It’s friendly competition, though. We just push each other. We both have the same goal and that is to get better every game.
“He helps me out on things and I help him out on things. I’m just glad he’s with me this year, he’s made this year a lot easier so far.”
Washington and Florence seem to symbolize the new look, run-and-gun Kewpies who replaced last year’s district champions. Only two players who returned this year, forward Bret Burchard and center Mikel Fields, played significantly on that team.
At 6-5, Fields is the tallest Kewpie that has significant playing time this year, and Hickman is making up for a size disadvantage by trying to outhustle opponents, running the ball up the court on offense and pressuring in the backcourt. Washington said running at such a high-octane pace gets tiring.
“That’s the good thing about having someone (behind you) that has good speed too, like Taylor,” he said.
Florence had 10 points in his debut against Hannibal, and he scored 23 in a loss last week to Blue Springs South. He had the winning basket against Park Hill on Saturday.
Washington averaged more than 11 points in his first four games. Although Washington and Florence say their first job is to move the ball around, neither is shy about shooting.
Washington said he doesn’t feel pressure because of his backup’s impressive early play; instead, he’s enjoying the competition.
“I’m not out there trying to improve my own stats; I just want to be out there trying to do this thing as a team,” he said.
Washington and Florence might have a long way to go at Hickman, but that’s not stopping either one of them from setting some lofty goals. Both say they would like to play in college. As for now, though, they realize that this is only the beginning.
“Us as a team, we’re not really focused on winning 30 ballgames like they did last year,” Florence said. “We’re just trying to get better, and that’s what coach really focuses on.”