You can call it a flawed system. You can call it a loophole. The Hickman football team does not care.
With a 3-6 record, Hickman still controls its destiny to an extent in tonight’s game against Jefferson City. If the Kewpies win, they will clinch at least a share of the District 6 championship. If that win is coupled with a Fort Zumwalt West loss to Fort Zumwalt South, the Kewpies will be heading to the playoffs because they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with Jefferson City.
How is this possible?
Missouri high school athletics are broken down into districts. The team that wins each district earns a playoff spot. Hickman is in Class 6 which has eight districts, meaning only eight teams will be playing for the Class 6 state title.
That means that a team’s district record is all that matters. Hickman was 2-5 in nondistrict play, but the team has gone 1-1 in its district. Jefferson City was 3-4 in nondistrict play and has gone 2-0 in the district.
Tonight’s game is especially important for some of Hickman’s seniors. Wide receivers Derrick Smith and Byron Bundy, quarterback Nick Timberlake and lineman Lucas Little were all members of Hickman’s 2004 state championship team. Hickman did not qualify for the postseason last year, so the seniors love having an opportunity to get back to the postseason with tonight’s game.
“You get to start all over,” Smith said. “All that stuff you did (in the first seven games) doesn’t really matter.”
Timberlake says Hickman must make the most of its unique situation.
“It’s a second chance,” he said. “When you get a second chance, you really got to capitalize on it because not everybody gets that.”
Little said the team has rallied around the opportunity.
“It (the chance to make the playoffs) is huge because we didn’t have that great of a beginning of the season,” he said. “That (the opportunity) is a new light that a lot of the guys see, and we’re kind of running with it now.”
Coach Jason Wright said he is just happy his team has a reason to come out to practice every day, and that the team has something to play for instead of giving up.
“We really have something to practice for, to prepare for,” he said. “All these guys told me that their goal was to win a district championship. It’s right there for us. That is the reason you play the game.”
Having a team’s district record decide playoff berths makes the three district games the only ones that matter. A poor performance can mean a team with a good record does not qualify for the playoffs.
“It just shows that if you keep playing hard and you keep fighting, anything can happen,” Bundy said. “It (the game against Jefferson City) means a lot because we still have a chance.”
“You get to start all over,” Smith said. “That is what I like. It gave us a shot. We were 2-5, and we got a chance. Some other teams were 7-0, and they’re out. That’s just the way it is. Life’s not fair.”
It might seem like the playoff setup could hurt some of the better teams in the state, but Wright said every team knows from the beginning of the season that the last three games are what really matter.
When Hickman squared off against Rock Bridge earlier this year, there was a lot of rivalry talk floating around town. But, the history of the schools shows that Hickman’s rivalry with Rock Bridge is not nearly as large as the one with Jefferson City.
Throw the district championship on top of that history, and tonight’s game is larger than life for the Hickman players.
“No matter what the records are, we are going to play our hardest against Jeff City,” Bundy said. “It means a lot more now because it’s the district championship on the line.”
Little said when Hickman plays Jefferson City, there might not be as much buzz as when the Kewpies play Rock Bridge, but the game is still important.
“It’s a bigger game to me and a lot more of the seniors on the team,” he said.