Archive for Thursday, February 17, 2005

Woodling: Lions, Firebirds could vie for title

February 17, 2005

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Attention, Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence and other River City citizens:

Sure, Kansas University has a terrific men's basketball team. You know that. But check out the boys basketball teams at Lawrence High and Free State High. They aren't exactly Swiss cheese.

In fact, for the first time since Free State opened in 1997, Lawrence has two teams capable of winning the Class 6A state basketball championship. Moreover, the possibility exists that the Lions and Firebirds could meet in the 6A state title game.

Granted, it isn't probable the Lawrence and Free State boys would clash for the big marble, yet both could be part of the eight-team championship field next month at Emporia's White Auditorium.

Right now, the Firebirds (14-3), who have been ranked No. 1 in the Kansas Basketball Coaches Assn. poll for the last five weeks, are the top seed in their sub-state, while the Lions (11-5), ninth in the KBCA rankings, are the No. 2 seed after stunning defending state champion Olathe South, 66-59, Tuesday night.

If the seeds remain that way -- or even if LHS slips to No. 3 -- the two city teams would not have to play each other in the sub-state to earn a state berth. But this is now, and that is then, and the road to the state tournament has more potholes than Kasold Drive.

Free State's ascension to the top of the 6A boys basketball heap has been this winter's No. 1 heartwarmer. Few expected the Firebirds to be this good. And that includes coach Jack Schreiner.

"I wouldn't say it's been surprising," said Schreiner, who was Lawrence High's coach when the Lions won the 1995 Class 6A championship, "but it's been kind of an unexpected year."

Last year's Firebirds weren't diced eggplant, but Schreiner had only two starters back from that 15-7 team -- point guard Sam Buhler and the ubiquitous Brady Morningstar. If Buhler, a 6-foot-1 senior, is the Firebirds' rudder, then Morningstar is the main sail.

One is the son of a former state senator (Mark Buhler), and the other is the offspring of a former KU basketball player (Roger Morningstar). Young Morningstar stands 6-foot-3, but he plays two or three inches taller. Blessed with bounce and possessed of an unteachable knack, Morningstar is a mid-major-college prospect who has visited Wichita State and Creighton, but says he plans to check out a few other schools as well.

Morningstar probably could pass for an eighth-grader, and he's so thin he wears a size XXL T-shirt under his jersey to make him look bulkier. Appearances can be deceiving, however, and Morningstar is one of several Firebirds whose cover belies the contents.

"We come into a gym, and I don't think we intimidate anybody," Schreiner said. "But they play so well together. They just want to win. That's all they care about."

When the Lions won the '95 state title, Schreiner had a coach on the floor in Brad Frederick, now an assistant coach at Vanderbilt. Buhler fits that mold today.

"Unless you coach or are a student of the game, you don't know what he's doing out there," Schreiner said of Buhler. "Even Brady listens to him."

Fifth-year Lawrence High coach Chris Davis marvels, too, at how technically sound the Firebirds are.

"They don't impress you in warmups, but they play so well together, and they're not selfish," Davis said. "On defense, they all know where everybody is going to be. I have not seen a team press as well as they press since I've been coaching in Kansas."

Coincidentally, both the Firebirds and Lions have five seniors. Schreiner starts all five, while Davis starts three and utilizes the other two extensively off the bench.

Lawrence High doesn't really have a go-to player like Morningstar, but 6-7 Tony Anderson and guards David Freeman and Brennan Bechard can light it up. For certain, this LHS team bears little resemblance to last year's 5-16 club.

"I felt we'd have a good team," Davis said, "but I didn't know how it would come together. For us, it's been a different guy every night. That's what makes our team work so well."

Lawrence and Free State split their two regular-season meetings. Curiously, the Firebirds won, 59-48, at LHS, but the Lions prevailed, 44-42, on the other side of town.

Anyone for a rubber match in Emporia?

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