By Kai Raymer (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Kickapoo caught fire at the right time in 2017.
The Chiefs entered their district tournament 10-13 overall. Four victories later, Kickapoo found itself in the Class 4 final four.
The postseason run included wins over Nixa and Smith-Cotton. During regular season play, the Chiefs lost to those two teams by a combined 11-2 margin.
“We’ve had some good teams in the past that didn’t get through (in the state tournament),” said Chiefs coach Phil Hodge. “It was nice to us come back and beat some teams who had handled us in the regular season.”
The Chiefs’ previous final four appearances came in 2007 and 1996. Kickapoo placed fourth last fall.
This year, the Chiefs’ strength figures to come from the midfield. A trio of all-conference selections return in that spot: Aiden Bilbao, Luke Boyd and Cole Peebles.
All three are juniors. Hodge estimated that Bilbao is Kickapoo’s top returning scorer, with a goal total in the seven-to-10 range last season.
“Aiden has tremendous soccer IQ. He really understands the game,” Hodge said. “He has a fantastic first touch.”
Boyd’s reshaped his body during the offseason. His hard work caught Hodge’s attention.
“He’s really impressed us with his training and conditioning,” Hodge said. “He’s fit, in shape. He’s often been the first to finish our conditioning and running drills. On the field, he has an attacking sense of mind.”
The Chiefs also welcome back senior forward Jaxon Riddle. He missed his junior season with a broken leg.
Anchoring Kickapoo’s defense is returning all-state goalkeeper Jacob Holman. He was named regional goalkeeper of the year in 2017.
“Great player, great kid and just fun to be around,” Hodge said. “He’s a great leader and competitor for our team. We have a junior and two freshmen at goalkeeper along with Jacob, and he does a great job of mentoring and helping them.”
As a freshman, Grayson McClure earned varsity minutes. Hodge likes the returning sophomore’s versatility.
“He’s feeling more comfortable (playing on varsity this year),” Hodge said. “We’re not quite sure where he’ll play yet, but he’ll have a role. He could end up at outside-mid for us.”
The Chiefs graduated a nine-player senior class that included two all-state selections, and another who earned all-conference honors.
Defender Zac Salyers was named first team all-state and regional defensive player of the year. Forward Deuce Vandaveer also made first team all-state and was named regional player of the year.
“Zac brought great athleticism; just a tremendous athlete,” Hodge said. “Deuce knew how to put his head down, go forward and create scoring opportunities.”
The Chiefs also graduated 6’5” foreign exchange student Vegard Wilhelmsen (Norway). He scored both goals in Kickapoo’s 2-1 sectional win over Nixa.
“It’s always nice to have a left-footed, 6-foot-5 guy,” Hodge said.
Kickapoo begins the regular season August 25 at Columbia Hickman.