By John Miller (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
When you talk about the best high school basketball teams in southwest Missouri, the sentence nearly always starts with the Kickapoo Chiefs.
A program that has produced NCAA Division-I talents on the regular in the past 15 years is loaded and primed for a big season this coming winter.
Last year, Kickapoo finished 29-3 and finished second in Class 5, with only Duke’s Jason Tatum preventing them from a state title with a 40-point effort.
Yes, Kickapoo lost a lot of talent from last year, including point-guard Isaac Johnson, a three-year starter who is now playing collegiately at Drury University, and guard/freak-athlete Niekie Thomas, now at Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Massachusetts (the same school his former Kickapoo teammate Tyson Batiste played at last year). Kickapoo will also be without last year’s sixth-man Derrick Roberson, now playing at NAIA Langston University.
Even with those losses, Kickapoo has more than enough talent to make a run at a state championship again this year.
Led by D-I commits Jared Ridder (Xavier) and Cameron Davis (Navy), the Chiefs should be a threat once again this season.
“We lost seven seniors from our state runner-up team last season,” said Kickapoo coach Dick Rippee, who carries a 157-44 record in seven years as the Chiefs’ coach, “but we return five of our top eight. They key for us this season … will be how well our guys buy into the team aspect of our program. We have some great individuals, but will everyone on our roster be willing to sacrifice their own personal agendas for the welfare of our team and program?”
Ridder, 6-foot-7, averaged 19.3 points and 6.2 rebounds for Kickapoo last season, earning First Team All-Conference, All-District, and All-State honors. He shot 51 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range. “He’s one of the best players in our state,” Rippee said. “He can score inside and outside and is an underrated inside player and defender.”
Davis, 6-foot, averaged 14 points and 4.7 rebounds last year, and was named First Team All-Conference, All-District, and All-State. He shot 48 percent from 3-point range last season.
Other key returners for Kickapoo are seniors Travis Vokolek, Isaac Blakeslee, and Mitch Closser. Vokolek, a 6-foot-6 blue-collar player inside, has garnered interest from many D-I schools for his play in football.
Kickapoo will also look to the play of six newcomers, all of which were key players on JV last season. Seniors Corey Dye and Jackson Auer, juniors Sam Wallin and Cole Forbes, and sophomores Donyae McCaskill and Keyshawn Jackson all could be asked to contribute at the varsity level this season. Rippee noted that McCaskill could find his way into the starting lineup. “He was one of the leading scorers on the JV team last season as a freshman,” Rippee said. “He has excellent quickness and athleticism, and his perimeter show has improved a great deal from last season.”
“We have tremendous outside shooters and also players that can really attack the rim,” Rippee said. “We have a very good rebounding team and a team that potentially can really defend, as well. Those two areas will be key for our team to compete with the schedule we have.”
That schedule includes road games at Lee’s Summit and Blue Springs South, as well as an appearance in the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions.
But with players like Ridder and Davis back to lead the charge, the Chiefs hope they have the talent and experience to navigate a tough schedule and make a run at a state title.
“This season has the potential to be just as good as last,” Davis said. “All of our focus is on competing and improving on a day-to-day basis to be the best we can be by the end of the season.”
Added Ridder: “We have all the potential to make it back. We just need to work hard in practice from day one.”