It happened almost 14 years ago, but Nov. 26, 2004, is still an important date to people at Hickman High School. The memories are still vivid in the mind of Hickman Athletic Director J.D. Coffman.
The Kewpies steamrolled Hazelwood East 34-7 that day to win the 2004-05 MSHSAA Class 6 Football State Championship. It remains the high point for Hickman football over the past two decades.
That 2004 Hickman team was a blueprint for how to build a successful football program. It featured over 20 seniors, including current head coach Cedric Alvis, and there were more than 100 players in the program at the time. That win was a culmination of four years of work for those players.
They embodied the winning culture Coffman and Alvis want to bring back to the 93 players donning a Hickman uniform this season.
The Kewpies, who went 11-1 in 2004, understood what it took to win, even before the season started. Hickman built upon a successful 2003 campaign, when the Kewpies won a district championship.
“Unless you have a program that is consistently vying for championships, the next generation of kids don’t know what that feels like and don’t know what is required,” Coffman said. “It takes a lot of commitment to reach that level.”
It wasn’t that long ago, but Hickman’s football program now has neither the numbers nor the winning culture of 2004.
Over the past five years, the number of players in uniform has ranged from a low of 74 in 2013 to a high in the nineties in 2014, and the Kewpies have had more than 90 players in each of the past three seasons. That allows Hickman to support three teams: varsity, junior varsity and freshmen. But Alvis and Coffman both understand that if Hickman is to return to the heights of 2004, the Kewpies need to see the participation numbers increase.
The goal for the program is to return to consistent numbers between 110 and 120 players.
“Those schools with the numbers I’m talking about, a lot of them have gone to a platoon system,” Coffman said, “where a kid only has to play one side of the ball. That’s the optimal way to do it.”
The ’04 Kewpies were able to do just that. According to Alvis, who is in his first year at the helm of Hickman football, Hickman had 112 players in the program in 2004, and this was without a freshmen team at the time. Coffman said the bulk of Hickman’s players played either offense or defense that year, and it reaped benefits for the Kewpies.
“They were fresh,” Coffman said. “They knew their assignments and could play at their top speed because they knew they only had a certain number of reps.”
Alvis used offensive and defensive linemen senior Jacob Ochoa and sophomore Gabe Fox as examples of Hickman‘s current constraints.
“They’re exceptional,” Alvis said. “But how much better could they be if they only had to focus on one side of the ball? If they did not get gassed, if they only had to do one job, how much better would they be?”
That wasn’t a concern for former coach Greg Nesbitt in 2004. Alvis credited the ability to platoon players for the team’s deep run through the playoffs.
In Alvis’ ideal world, the program would be between 120 and 140 players, including 70-plus players on varsity and the rest on the junior varsity and freshmen teams. That would leave Hickman competitive at all three levels, and the Kewpies in position to run a platoon-style system at the varsity level.
The nationwide drop in football participation numbers likely stems from a multitude of reasons. Student-athlete and parent awareness of concussions and other safety concerns is among them.
At Hickman, there are other factors that might have led to a decrease in the numbers. Back-to-back 1-9 seasons and three different head coaches in the last three years might have played a role, though Coffman believes those circumstances have only kept “a handful” of students from joining the football team over the years.
But sheer numbers won’t bring this program back, and Alvis knows it. It will also take a commitment from each player to continue improving year-round, especially in the weight room. Remolding this program will take work in the offseason.
“We have to get stronger,” Alvis said. “Iowa State has coined it — ‘Win in the dark,’ and that’s what we have to do. There’s been nothing going on in the dark. When the lights turn off in the past four years, nothing was going on.”
For Alvis and his coaching staff, a commitment to “working in the dark” will help bring back a winning culture to Hickman. And maybe that will bring players back to the football field.
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.