Free State High's girls basketball team missed out on a chance to play host to a Class 6A sub-state, but playing at Olathe East might be the next best thing.
"We've been there before," said FSHS coach Craig Hershiser, whose squad will take on Topeka High tonight. "Heck, we've played seven, eight games there the last two years."
Tipoff for tonight's sub-state semifinal is 6 p.m. at O-East with a live radio broadcast available on KLWN 1320. The winner of No. 2 Free State (14-6) and No. 7 Topeka (7-13) will meet the No. 3 Olathe East (14-6)-No. 6 Leavenworth (8-11) victor at 6 p.m. Saturday.
The Firebirds already are 3-1 at their home away from home this season, defeating Leavenworth and St. Louis Marquette during the Olathe East tournament and knocking off the Hawks, 36-31, on Jan. 13.
Free State, which also played four games at Olathe East last season, has played more games only at home than at OEHS during the past two seasons.
Could familiarity favor the Firebirds?
"I guess you'd think so," Hershiser said. "We've been there before. We have a little bit of an idea what the gym is like. If that helps us or not I guess remains to be seen."
Free State finished strong during the regular season, winning three of its final four. The lone loss was a 40-38 setback at Shawnee Mission East in the finale. Before falling to the Lancers, the Firebirds had won seven of their previous eight games dating back to a third-place finish in the inaugural Firebird Winter Classic at the FSHS gym.
"I think our kids have this feeling that all season we've been building toward this portion of the year, really for the last month or so," Hershiser said. "It's almost as if we've been somewhat in a tournament kind of feel because every game we've played since the tournament we hosted here has had some kind of sub-state seeding implications.
"There was a real sense of purpose, especially the last eight games of the season. Every game mattered for something, every game counted, and the kids knew that and they played accordingly."
Topeka High also has been surging, having won three straight heading into sub-state. The Trojans are led by 6-foot-2 junior center Crystal Kemp, who averages 22.3 points a game. She scored 27, 20 and 32 points respectively during Topeka's three-game sizz.
"Well, the Kemp girl is their mainstay," Hershiser said. "She's good for about 20 a game, 6-2, has range, left-handed shooter, has a nice shooting touch around the basket. She can come out about 15 feet away and hit a jump shot as well. She poses an unusual matchup problem for us."
Size-wise, Free State will counter with 6-0 senior center Joyia Chadwick, who's second on the team in scoring at 10.4 ppg. Scoring-wise, the Firebirds' answer is senior guard/forward Katie Rhodes (14.3 ppg).
Free State senior forward Christina Neighbors (7.8) and senior point guard Jackie Dubois (5.4) round out the Firebirds' offense.
"We've enjoyed a very good regular season," Hershiser said. "I think it was a year where we really found our identity. We know what we are and what we can do. We competed very well in the league and did some things we haven't done before in terms of teams we've played that we've beaten.
"That helps us a lot this time of year it helps our attitude, it helps our outlook."