Standing on the JQH Arena floor, four seniors from one of the great high school basketball teams in the area's history hoisted a state championship trophy on a March night.
Kickapoo, which capped off a state championship run, was set to say "goodbye" to its four-year starting point guard who was Mizzou-bound, another Mizzou-bound teammate, one signed with Missouri State and another who is destined for the Division I level after a year of prep school.
There was no chance the Chiefs would be able to replicate the magic the next year, right?
Well, the 2021-22 Chiefs didn't get the memo.
After losing four Division-I caliber players to graduation, Kickapoo appears to be among the area's elite after advancing to the semifinal round of the Blue Division at the 2021 Blue and Gold Tournament.
Back-to-back blowout wins concluded with the Chiefs defeating Branson 73-47 on Tuesday afternoon at JQH Arena. In the game, Kickapoo showed a bit of everything that made it special and why it's going to be a team to be reckoned with going forward.
"We really like our group and what they're capable of doing," head coach Mitch McHenry said. "We play well together, we're really, really tough when we're all playing well together and sharing the ball. We have a lot of scoring options that we feel confident in and are tough to guard."
Kickapoo's continued stability starts with superstar junior Zaide Lowery, who has a legitimate claim to being the best player in southwest Missouri. He came off the bench for the Chiefs' state-championship winning team last season but he's emerged as someone who can be the best player on one of the best teams.
Lowery scored a somewhat quiet 25 points in Tuesday's win. The 6-foot-5 ultra-athletic guard is capable of scoring at every level and is a human highlight reel when he decides to throw down a one-handed slam over multiple defenders.
"He's gotten better every year, he's very coachable and he's a great teammate," McHenry said. "When you have those intangibles and he gets more athletic every single year and is as skilled as he is, that's a pretty good package for a kid. I think if he continues to get better every single year like he's done, the sky's the limit for him."
Lowery also has a great supporting cast with some experienced players and some who have broken out now that they're getting a chance at the varsity level.
Brayden Shorter, a 6-foot-5 junior, would have played on most teams in the area a year ago but the Chiefs had a loaded-enough roster where he wouldn't have gotten much time. He played well at the junior-varsity level and waited for his opportunity.
Now that he's getting his chance, Shorter has broken out as one of the better outside shooters in the area. His length makes him tough to defend and he's solid on the defensive end as well.
"He's playing at a really, really high level for us right now," McHenry said. "We have a lot of guys who are stepping up and excelling in the roles that we're giving them."
Other players stepping into bigger roles include Trae Oetting, Matthew Jones and Harrison Doennig. The first two do a lot of the ball-handling after Anton Brookshire had been the primary ball-handler for the Chiefs the previous four seasons.
It hasn't been too big of an adjustment for the players on the court but it has been one for the coaches on the sideline.
"Anton ran the show and did it at a high level and was an extension of the coach on the court," McHenry said. "It's been an adjustment but our guards are doing a great job. We're learning as we go and early in the year, we're having success."
Kickapoo now enters the Blue Division semifinals where it will play No. 6 Hartville — which handed the Chiefs one of their two losses last season during the Springfield R-12 Classic.
Revenge might be on the mind for the Chiefs heading into it but the continued growth of the program will be front and center as Kickapoo remains one of the top teams in southwest Missouri.
"I think we will continue to get better throughout the year," McHenry said. "I think we'll be tough when it matters late in the year when those are our most important games."
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at email@example.com or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. He's also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4-6 p.m.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Blue and Gold 2021: Kickapoo remains elite after losing four starters