Free State High boys basketball coach Jack Schreiner has every reason to be down about the upcoming season.
First he lost a three-year starter at point guard to graduation, then he lost his top returning scorer as a transfer. To top things off, the Firebirds open with back-to-back road games and won't play their second home game until Jan. 27.
Free State coach Jack Schreiner
But a strange thing happened on the way to the 2000-01 season.
"I told them the other night that so far they're my favorite team since I've been at Free State," Schreiner said. "They just bring a different attitude. It's kind of fun. I've gone home most nights in a pretty good mood."
Free State, which finished 12-11 last season and qualified for the Class 6A state tournament for the first time, opens tonight at Topeka Washburn Rural. The varsity game will follow the junior varsity game, with tipoff slated for approximately 7 p.m.
On Saturday the Firebirds will travel to Topeka High, the site of their sub-state championship victory over the Trojans last year.
With the loss of 6-foot-5 senior center Marcus Chrisman, who transferred to Kansas City Schlagle, and his 12.2 points per game, Free State loses both height and scoring. The Firebirds hope senior swingman Richie Dunlop (4.1 ppg) can account for the scoring, and that 6-3 senior center Pat Krivoshia (7.0 ppg), 6-7 junior Danny Affalter, 6-6 junior Sam Strickler-Hut and 6-7 sophomore Keith Wooden will offer some size.
But Free State's biggest concern could be at point guard, where former-Firebird Jess Criswell (team-high 13.1 ppg) was entrenched the past three seasons.
"Last year, basically for us to win, Jess and Marcus had to play well and maybe somebody else pitch in with a good game," Schreiner said. "This year's team, we don't have that all-conference preseason player, so to speak. We have to play as a team to win and I really think that helps your team chemistry."
The leading candidates to replace Criswell are senior point guard Morgan Minnis and sophomore point guard Neil Dougherty, who saw some limited playing time at the varsity level last year as a freshman.
"Replacing Marcus doesn't bother me nearly as much as replacing Criswell, getting us into our offense and stuff," Schreiner said. "Morgan has done a good job of that so far and Neil Dougherty, for a sophomore, has done a pretty good job of that. I think what we've done now, instead of just having one or two players that we can concentrate on, we play as a whole team.
"There's really a good feeling in practice. There's a good feeling with this team because it's really a team. It's not just one or two kids."
It's that team camaraderie that Schreiner hopes will translate into tough team defense, with junior swingman Andron Cruse being the team's defensive stopper.
The Free State coach also has high hopes for senior guards Greg Dillon and Chris Luman, and for senior forwards Clint Thrasher and Todd Trahan.
"I think the kids are ready to go," Schreiner said. "The kids are tired of practicing. They're ready to play a game. We've worked really hard, too. They've only had one day off and that was Thanksgiving. They're ready to play a game."