Coming off back-to-back Class 6A state tournament berths, Free State High's boys basketball team was flying high heading into the 2001-02 season.
Maybe even a little too high.
"We were pretty confident and I can say big-headed at the beginning of the season, which we shouldn't have been," FSHS senior Andron Cruse said following the Firebirds' 53-52 season-ending loss to Olathe East in their sub-state semifinal Friday at FSHS. "We should have taken it one game at a time and not looked past a lot of the games."
Free State struggled early, enduring a five-game losing streak in dropping nine of its first 12 games. True to form, though, the Firebirds finished strong by winning seven of their final nine. Their 10-11 overall record (5-5 in the Sunflower League) might even be a little deceiving considering they lost six games by a single point.
Cruse is one of four Free State players whose careers concluded with Friday's loss, joining fellow seniors Aubrey Gilbert, Damian Harden and Sam Strickler-Hut.
Cruse, who played varsity for three years, was fourth on the team in scoring at 6.6 points a game. He also was Free State's second-leading three-point shooter, hitting 27 of 82 attempts.
"I'll just remember my sophomore year playing with my brother (Eugene)," Cruse said, "junior year coming out and starting thinking I was hot stuff, starting as a junior and senior year my shooting and everything.
"My buddy, Jack. I've spent three years with him. It's going to be weird without him next year."
The feeling's mutual.
"You just always hate to lose your seniors because you've known them for a long time," FSHS coach Jack Schreiner said. "You just hate to say goodbye to them. This is tough, guys. It's real tough. We were planning on going a little bit farther than this."
How far the Firebirds go next season will depend on what junior center Keith Wooden decides.
Wooden, who set school records for points in a season with 348 and points in a career with 623, is considering a transfer to Olathe and playing at either O-East or O-South. If he were to return to Free State for his senior season, the Firebirds would have their top three scorers back.
"We feel real good," Wooden said about the outlook for 2002-03. "We're going to have a nice team next year. Hopefully we can come back and do it again."
Will that "we" include Wooden?
"Hopefully," said Wooden, regarded as an NCAA Div. I prospect. "I don't know yet. It's something I have got to discuss with my parents and then I'll make a decision. I don't know yet. I have to talk to my parents."
Wooden led Free State in scoring with an average of 16.6 points a game, the highest average for either boys or girls in the history of the fifth-year school.
"I'm not really sure what the situation is, but I hope he's back," said FSHS junior point guard Neil Dougherty, who was second in scoring at 9.4 ppg. "I want to play where he plays. There's a lot of young talent coming back. It should be an exciting year next year if we get everything together."
In addition to Wooden and Dougherty, the Firebirds also expect to return the services of juniors Bijai Jones, Cameron Karlin and Collin Schmidt. Sophomores Dain Dillingham and Cole Douglas also played quality minutes this season.
"I feel real good about next year," said Dillingham, the squad's third-leading scorer at 8.8 ppg. "I think this year was definitely a learning experience. I think we'll miss the seniors and their leadership. But next year we'll definitely have people who will step up and be ready to play."