Emporia The present didn't provide much fodder for the Free State High girls basketball team Wednesday night.
A 17-point loss in the opening round of the Class 6A state tournament will have that effect. There wasn't much coach Bryan Duncan or his players could say about the Firebirds' loss to Wichita South that wasn't painfully obvious to anyone who walked through the White Auditorium turnstiles. So why dwell on it?
Instead, they did a little time traveling.
First, to the future - where things look oh-so-promising for a program desperate to show it isn't a flash in the pan.
The last time the Firebirds saw their season end in Emporia, they followed with four straight seasons that failed to measure up and build any momentum. That shouldn't be a concern this time.
While Free State isn't excited about losing the senior trio of forward Banaka Okwuone and guards Tricia Dunham and Sarah Heider, reality is now at hand. And it says a returning core that includes four starters - including the Firebirds' top three scorers - is a good reason to start worrying about what will happen next winter instead of what ended this one.
"We really feel like we got over the hump, so to speak, by getting here," Duncan said. "That does raise our expectations for next season. That means we need to work really hard in the offseason. We're not going to surprise anyone next season. But our players like those lofty expectations."
"They're going to be able to pick up right where we left off," said Heider, a role player who saw her career end with a brief appearance on the state stage. "They're going to be awesome next year. Free State is in good hands."
Two months ago, not everyone was quite so sure.
To understand just what the future now means, one must look to the past - specifically, to mid-January, when the Firebirds were 7-7 and facing an identity crisis.
"There was one point in the locker room where coach (Ashley) Rogers said, 'You need to figure it out and decide where you want to go from here,'" Free State junior Kelsey Harrison said. "And we did."
The Firebirds subsequently ran off eight straight victories, including wins over rival Lawrence High to close out the regular season and again five nights later to open the postseason. Then came the game that will live forever in their collective memory - a 69-65 victory over Olathe East in a Class 6A sub-state final to earn the right to dance in Emporia.
"It's no secret right about then, at 7-7, our goal was to get to the state tournament," Duncan said. "We certainly believed we could do it and would do it. Obviously, you'd like to win a game when you get here ... but we did accomplish our major goal."
Which, in Duncan's perpetual glass-half-full world, was enough to bring forth a phrase no one expects out of a coach forced to cut short his tournament itinerary by two full days.
"I've actually got a great feeling right now," Duncan said. "You look at what got us here - our last month and a half of the season was pretty special."