Kickapoo’s top returning defensive player saw a change come to the Chiefs in the offseason.
Travis Vokolek’s father, former Missouri State defensive coordinator D.J. Vokolek, is now on the Kickapoo coaching staff. That means Travis, who logged 82 tackles in 13 games last season, sometimes catches an earful on the practice field and again later at home.
“It’s different. I’m glad he’s here, he’s in my ear every day,” Travis Vokolek said. “He wants what’s best for the team and he’s helping me out, helping everyone else to be the best that we can be.”
Kickapoo went 12-1 last season and reached the Class 6 playoff semifinals. They became the first Springfield Public Schools team to win 12 games in a season.
“We definitely want to get back to where we were last year, and we know that we can. We’ve got some underclassmen that are going to have to step up,” Vokolek said.
The success of 2015 served as a motivator for this past summer.
“It’s been stuck in all of the guys’ heads,” Vokolek said of the desire to return to the playoffs.
Kickapoo coach Kurt Thompson said his team didn’t have many discussions about the success of 2015. The veteran coach, who is in the second year of his second stint at Kickapoo, said he worked to shift his players’ focus forward.
“(Looking back) doesn’t help us win any football games this year. A lot of them had a lot to do with that, and we’re proud of that point, but this is a new year and we have to go out and be the best team that we can be,” Thompson said.
While the Kickapoo roster took a hit from the 2016 graduation, the Chiefs will have more than 20 seniors and return some key leaders.
“The guys who were juniors last year — we’re all stepping up this year. We have our four captains: Mav (McGee), Chris (Lawson), me and Grant Martin. We’re taking leadership,” Vokolek said.
Lawson will again be the starting quarterback with McGee at running back and Martin on the offensive line.
“Travis is what you want. He studies the game and plays hard, and gives you all the effort he has,” Thompson said.
Thompson welcomed D.J. Vokolek to his staff when the elder Vokolek opted not to return to the coaching staff at the University of Buffalo.
D.J. Vokolek played four years at linebacker for Nebraska-Kearney.
He spent nine seasons as associate head coach and defensive coordinator at Missouri State. He also assisted with the Bears’ safeties.
Prior to his near-decade at Missouri State, D.J. Vokolek spent three seasons (2003-05) at Northern Iowa as assistant head coach and linebackers coach. In 2005, he served as defensive coordinator and helped lead the Panthers to the FCS National Championship game.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Travis Vokolek is a defensive standout. It’s in his genetic makeup.
“He’s kind of a hybrid position. He’s our adjustment guy, he might be an outside linebacker, a down safety and play high safety at times. He’s a guy that adjusts us and gets us in the fronts that we need to be in,” Thompson said.
Vokolek holds football scholarships from Army, Missouri Southern and Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He hopes to pick up more recruiting interest as the season progresses.
Kickapoo opens the season Friday with a visit to Parkview for a 7 p.m. kickoff at JFK Stadium. The game has been picked as the News-Leader Game of the Week presented by Murney Associates.