Another year, another loaded field for the Firebird Winter Classic girls basketball tournament at Free State High.
Even with last year's tournament champion, Hutchinson, absent from this year's field, there aren't many creampuffs among the eight teams playing at FSHS today.
"There's eight quality teams coming to the tournament," FSHS coach Bryan Duncan said. "It should be very competitive and a lot of fun."
Among those eight are Free State and Lawrence High, though neither is where it wants to be at this stage of the season.
Duncan's Firebirds sit at 3-5, losers of three straight.
Lawrence High, after being ranked in Class 6A to start the season, is 4-4.
Free State is seeded seventh for the Classic, and Lawrence High is fifth.
"We're not thrilled to be the five seed," LHS coach Kristin Mallory said, "but we made our bed, and now we have to lie in it."
Regardless, a strong showing by either team could make records -- and morale -- a whole lot better.
LHS starts the tourney today with a 5:30 p.m. game against Topeka Highland Park. Free State will follow with a 7 p.m. showdown with Manhattan.
Other teams in the tourney include undefeated Tecumseh Shawnee Heights, Wichita North, Blue Valley and Kansas City Schlagle.
"There's going to be some great competition," FSHS junior Jamie Stanclift said. "But that's going to keep us up, too, and make us better."
Stanclift, the Firebirds' leading scorer at 9.9 points per game, is just one of a balanced scoring trio, joining senior Jenny Gwaltney (9.3 ppg) and senior Emilie Humbarger (9.1 ppg) to lead Free State's scoring.
The Firebirds started the season 3-2, with wins over KC Wyandotte, Junction City and Shawnee Mission South. But three straight setbacks -- two to teams ranked in Class 6A -- have left the Firebirds looking for a boost.
"We've lost to some good teams," Duncan said, "but now we need to beat some of those teams."
Lawrence High, meanwhile, appears to be on the rebound. After enduring a similar three-game slide earlier this month, things instantly became brighter when the Lions knocked off Shawnee Mission Northwest, currently ranked sixth in 6A, Jan. 13. LHS followed it up with a 76-23 victory over Olathe Northwest before taking 13 days off leading to tonight's game.
The Lions are led by senior Josie Polk (21.7 ppg), senior Cherrale Ricks (9.9 ppg, 7.3 rebounds per game) and junior Megan Klingler (9.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg). Together, the three provide an inside-outside game that's hard to stop when they're on the same page.
With two weeks off, the Lions focused mainly on defense, one of the team's struggles through the first eight games.
"We're taking a different defensive approach since the start of the season," Mallory said. "The break gave us time to look into it a little bit. The girls are responding well to that."
The four winners today will advance to the semifinals of the tournament, which will be played Friday in the main gym. The championship game is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday.
"It will be a good barometer of where we're at and seeing if we can elevate it to the next level," Mallory said. "I'm hoping it's a challenge for our girls."