Thursday, September 27, 2012

Jeff City-Hickman CVIII

Friday, the 5-0 Hickman Kewpies travel down to Adkins Stadium to take on the 5-0 Jefferson City Jays in the 108th meeting of this storied rivalry.

It's a fascinating rivalry, one that I've heard is the second-oldest high school football rivalry in the state. Columbia is a small city that has that small city, college town vibe, but it can feel bigger, especially with the noise and passion and national attention of being an SEC school during football season. Columbia Hickman is old, Columbia's link to another time, plenty of tradition and notable alumni. The Kewpies won football state titles in 1974 and 2004.

Jefferson City is also a small city, albeit smaller than Columbia, although it can almost feel more like a big small town. I think you can tell a lot about a community by what's the biggest sports game in town. In Jeff City, it's undoubtedly Jay football. With 10 state titles, the Jays have football tradition at least on par with any school in the state. And they could have even more. It seems archaic now, but Missouri didn't have an official state football playoff until 1968, and Jefferson City reeled off 10 undefeated seasons between 1943 and 1967.

Hickman fans wear shirts with a Jay head on a stake (or at least one at last week's game did). Jefferson City sings, "Run the ball clear 'round Columbia; A touchdown sure this time!" in their fight song. Rivalry. They are united perhaps only in their disdain for Rock Bridge, still forced at 39 to sit at the kids' table in the minds of the Jays and Kewpies.

They first met in 1911, a 6-0 Hickman win. They've met every year since then except for 1918, when the global influenza epidemic shut down the season. Hickman built an early lead in the series during the leatherhead days, winning 21 of 22 meetings from 1920 to 1940. The Kewpies won 31-14 in 1957 to take a 34-10-4 series lead.

Then, in 1958, Pete Adkins arrived in Jefferson City. The Jays went 6-1-2 in his first year and embarked on an audacious 71-game winning streak from 1958 to 1966. He beat Hickman eight straight times to begin his Jeff City career, and 13 of his first 14. Hickman struck back to win 13 of 18 from 1972 to 1985, but then Jeff City reeled off 17 straight wins against Hickman ('86 to '99), the longest winning streak in the series. Jeff City was about as dominant a high school football program during this stretch as possible. Check this out, Jeff City's playoff results from 1986 to 1994, Adkins' last nine seasons: semifinalist, semifinalist, state champ, semifinalist, state champ, state champ, semifinalist, state champ, state champ.

Hickman broke through with a landmark 28-12 win in 2000 and won four straight from 2002 to 2005. Jeff City then won five straight from 2006 to 2010 to finally even the overall series, which the Jays have never led. But in a shocking district game result, Hickman stunned the Jays, snatched a spot in the state playoffs and ended Jeff City's season. Hickman now leads the series 52-51-4.

It was a bitter defeat for the Jays, and some are talking revenge this year. They would love to even up the series again, maybe finally take the lead should they meet in district play. Hickman's Kewpies have other ideas, with a stout defense and the typical hard-nosed rushing attack. Fresh off a madcap, rallying win against Rock Bridge, they have growing momentum.

It should be an incredible atmosphere on Friday night. Adkins Stadium under the Friday night lights is a special scene, nestled in the hills and trees along Stadium Boulevard. It's the best big-school high school football environment I've experienced.

(The best small-school football environment? Give me the Trenton Bulldogs' C.F. Russell Stadium. Built in the 1930s as a WPA project, a child of the Great Depression long known as Eastside Stadium, it's not ashamed of its age. The stadium's grandstand roof and support beams, plus wooden bleachers, give it a distinct look, wonderfully different from the hordes of tin-sided press box and metal bleachers of almost every small high school. With the solemn bulldog memorial to a student who died at a game years ago beyond one end zone, trees and a neighborhood beyond another (nestled, Wrigley Field feel), and an encircling track on which Jesse Owens once ran, the place feels perfect for small-school, close-knit-community football.)

High school athletics are very subjective and personal. What's the best high school rivalry? Your high school and their rival. Always. And for the kids getting ready to suit up in Hickman purple or Jeff City red and black, dreaming and craving a win they'll remember forever under those bright lights, this is their greatest game, a Super Bowl for their hometowns.

On Friday, Adkins will be a great arena for the latest installment of Kewpies and Jays. Both head coaches have lengthy ties to their programs, with the son of the Jeff City coach quarterbacking the Jays.  To have played 107 times and have one game separating the alltime series, well that's pretty remarkable. The rivalry has had its turns and shifts in over a century of play. Friday, the Kewpies and Jays renew auld acquaintances for the 108th meeting. Let's do it.

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