O'FALLON, Mo. — On Friday, Fort Zumwalt North will face Francis Howell High School in the Class 6 District 6 Championship game, and for the Panthers, it’s more than another game.
They’ll be taking the court with two motives in mind: win the district championship title to continue a playoff run and defeat the team who ended their playoff run last season.
Fort Zumwalt North has only lost to four teams since January 2020: Rock Bridge, Fort Zumwalt South, University City and Francis Howell.
The Panthers beat Fort Zumwalt South last month to redeem their loss, but haven’t had the chance to do the same against the other three teams without a second chance.
Fort Zumwalt North head coach Mike Uffmann said this will be another big test for the Panthers.
“So, there’s only like four schools in the last probably 400 or so days that have beaten us, and we’ve been able to get some of those back,” Uffmann said. “But this is one we haven’t had the chance to play again.”
University City was eliminated by Cardinal Ritter in the district playoffs Wednesday, and Rock Bridge was eliminated by Washington in the Class 6 District 8 championship game Thursday.
That leaves Francis Howell.
Fort Zumwalt North last faced Francis Howell on March 11, 2020, when the Vikings defeated the Panthers 73-65 in the Class 5 sectional game.
“They have a lot of playoff experience,” Uffman said. “They made a Final Four run a couple of years ago, and three of their kids were part of that team, and played nice roles in that. They went to quarterfinals last year and ended our season. So, we have to stick to who we are, doing some things we do really well that got us here, and we shouldn’t stray from that too much. And we just want to make sure that our best is better than their best.”
The Panthers doubled their win total from 2019, finishing the 2020 season with a 20-9 record. The majority of those nine losses came early in the season.
The team set a school record with its first 20-game win record in a single season, and its first district championship win since 2016.
Fort Zumwalt North will take the court Friday night with a 24-2 season record. The difference? Panthers senior KJ Lee.
Lee began his high school career at O’Fallon Christian before transferring to Fort Zumwalt North his sophomore year.
The 6-foot-7 guard leads the team with 459 points this season, averaging more than 15 points and nearly four rebounds per game.
Uffmann said upperclassmen experience has been key.
On Friday, Lee will go head-to-head with Francis Howell senior guard Sam Maddox and senior forward Sam Thompson, who have scored a combined 719 points this season.
The Vikings head into Friday’s matchup with a 19-4 season record. Their most recent loss came in February to Kirkwood High School.
Since that loss, Howell has scored more than 60 points in each game.
Francis Howell was eliminated by CBC in the Class 5 quarterfinal game in 2020 after losing to CBC in the state semi-final game in 2019. The Vikings returned with more fire and experience this year.
Francis Howell head coach Kurt Jacob said the team’s tradition has played a key role in that.
“Our kids know kind of what it takes,” Jacob said. “It doesn’t guarantee that we’re going to come out and make a huge run, but we understand what it takes, and how tough you have to be, and how attention to detail matters.”
But for Howell, it hasn’t been an easy road to get this point in the season this time around.
“We got shut down twice, ya know for positive tests, and had several kids quarantined multiple times,” Jacob said. “So, it hasn’t been a bunch of rhythm and routine as we usually have.”
Jacob added that this adversity has taught the team multiple lessons and has given the players motivation to enter a game like this one.
“We have a lot of tradition at Howell,” Jacob said. “Obviously, over these last seven years we’ve had a lot of success and you know how that works. Success kind of breeds success. They understand what it takes to win, and they know what it means to try and meet challenges like we have tonight (Friday). So, we’re just hoping that we can come out and have one of our better efforts against them, and knock in some shots, and try and follow the defensive game plan. Hopefully we’ve got a shot down the stretch, but our kids have been through it over the last few years, and hopefully that helps us tonight.”
Tipoff is at 7 p.m. at host school Fort Zumwalt East.