The talented Free State High boys basketball team was expected to play at the Class 6A state tournament this week in Emporia.
The most obvious reason would be 6-foot-9, Arizona State-bound senior Keith Wooden, one of the state's top players.
With a player like that and a strong supporting cast, Saturday's 55-54 loss to Leavenworth in the sub-state finals was a surprise, right?
Not really. Two years ago, FSHS was 10-11 and beat top-seeded Leavenworth in the sub-state opener, proving anything can happen in sub-state play.
"You could look at a lot of different programs that have Division One players, and not all of them make it," FSHS coach Jack Schreiner said. "The problem with the Sunflower League is that it's so tough, it really takes more than one great player.
"Here's how it sums up: If we make one more shot, I'm a much better coach."
Criticism of the Firebirds' 15-7 season would be extreme.
Free State's 15 wins easily broke the old school record of 12, and the Firebirds won the KVOE Tip-Off Classic in Emporia for the first time in school history. They ripped off school-record five- and six-game winning streaks and claimed a season sweep of rival
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Lawrence High for the second time in the school's six-year history.
Still, the season ended on a sour note.
"I felt so bad for the kids because they played so hard and they put so much into it," Schreiner said. "I've watched the (Leavenworth) game two or three times, and I think there were about 1,000 things we could have had gone our way, but didn't."
Adding to list of accomplishments was Wooden. Already the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder, Wooden passed 1992 Lawrence High graduate Maurice Trotter to become the city record-holder with 1,006 points.
And Wooden did it by scoring 190 points in the season's final nine games, an average of 21 points a game. Breaking the record with a 22-point, 16-rebound performance against Leavenworth was a feat unto itself.
"If he were to do it, I thought we'd have gone to state," Schreiner said. "I think that shows how hard he played and how well he played the last part of the season."
For Schreiner, who endured a 10-11 season last year with largely the same players, this season was a revelation. It reinforced how much he loves coaching.
"This year rejuvenated me," he said. "I really feel good about it. This was fun."
Despite a pair of extended losing streaks, only four wins and a first-round exit in the sub-state tournament, Bryan Duncan had no complaints after his first season coaching the FSHS girls basketball team.
In fact, Duncan is upbeat regarding the Firebirds' 4-17 season.
"It was very enjoyable, actually," he said. "There were definitely some ups and downs, but I think that's the nature of coaching. I think someone told me once you have to be a thermostat, not a thermometer. You've got to keep an even keel through those ups and downs."
The ups -- back-to-back wins, including a 39-28 victory against Kansas City Sumner in the Firebird Winter Classic opener -- might include how close the Firebirds came to some surprises.
They lost by seven to state tournament-bound Leavenworth; were edged at Olathe North, 39-38; and came within five of beating Sunflower League power Shawnee Mission East.
In the final nine games of the season, FSHS lost by an average of 11 points. During the seven-game skid at the start of the season, the average losing margin was 20.
"Not many people know how much we improved and just how competitive we were the last three weeks of the season," Duncan said.
They ended the streak with a 55-40 victory against Kansas City (Mo.) Hogan Prep, then upended Sumner.
No. 1-ranked Hutchinson handed FSHS a 22-point loss in its next game, but it didn't dampen the high point of the season.
"Winning that first game and playing in the semifinals of our tournament was our goal," Duncan said. "That was a big deal."
The Firebirds lose only two players from this year's squad; four starters -- and their top three scorers -- return. Sophomore Jamie Stanclift led FSHS in scoring (12.0 ppg) and rebounding (6.0), while juniors Emilie Humbarger (7.2 ppg) and Kirby Beneventi (5.8 ppg) were outside threats.
Those three noticeably improved until the season-ending loss to Overland Park Aquinas at sub-state, and they'll be three of the keys to Free State's improvement next season.
"If you look strictly at our wins and losses -- which a lot of people use to measure your season -- from that standpoint, we had a lot more valleys than peaks," he said. "But at the end, after the Aquinas game, you could tell by the looks on their faces that they didn't want it to end. I think that's an indicator of where we're headed."