Free State at LHS
When: Girls 5:30 tonight, boys 7:30 tonightWhere: Lawrence High gymGirls records: Free State 13-6, LHS 13-6Boys records: Free State 9-10, LHS 13-6
For the Lawrence High girls basketball team, stopping Free State High always come down to one nuance of the 32-minute game.
"Every time we play these guys, it's the same thing," LHS coach Kristin Mallory said. "We've got to handle their press."
The Lions' ability to navigate the Free State pressure will go a long way toward deciding the outcome of tonight's crosstown rivalry game at Lawrence High. The Firebirds average 9.7 steals and use guards Jenna Brantley and Lauren Kimball to start the pressure up top. But with such good athletes at every position, their trap can come from any player and at any place on the court.
"(It) can be confusing for teams," Free State coach Bryan Duncan said.
To prepare for that confounding attack, the LHS varsity team has practiced against the junior varsity's press and emphasized hard cuts and smart passes. Much of the burden, though, will fall on the shoulders of sophomore point guard Taylor Bird, the team's primary ballhandler and best playmaker.
"They will make note of where she's at," Mallory said.
During the earlier matchup - a 59-36 win by Free State on Dec. 21 - Taylor scored six points during the first half but only one during the second before fouling out.
The Lions stormed out to a 13-8 lead at the end of the first quarter and led 22-21 at halftime during that game before the Firebids closed it, using a 24-10 run.
"We kind of got punched in the mouth and didn't respond," LHS senior Sydnei Tolefree said. "You just have to keep playing no matter what."
Although the Lions emphasized staying close throughout, early deficits do not worry the Firebirds (13-6). During their last game against Olathe Northwest, they trailed 7-0 before winning 48-34. The team's five seniors - Brantley, Kimball, Allie Hock, Kelsey Harrsion and Jessica Scott - allow the Firebirds to weather any scoring run.
"We're pretty comfortable from about any position." Duncan said. "That's one nice thing about having a lot of experience, and we've played in a lot of big games."
The Lions feature a younger squad, which starts Taylor Bird and sophomore Tania Jackson. But the Lions (13-6) have improved since the team's meeting early in the season. The players know each others' tendencies and understand when to push the ball and when to slow it down.
"We've grown a lot," Tolefree said.
Also differing from the December matchup will be the venue. Lawrence High's "Jungle," known for its raucous crowd and intimate setting, will play host to the game.
"It's definitely a lot louder, a little more hostile," said Harrison, who totaled 13 points, five rebounds and three steals during the first matchup. "All their fans are right there yelling at you."
Today's Senior Day contest represents the last game in the "Jungle" for LHS seniors Tolefree, Katelyn Hobbs, Hannah Somers and Abby Vestal.
"It's going to mean a lot," Tolefree said. "And hopefully that will bring a lot of energy from everyone."
That energy only will augment the emotion of the rivalry game, which features neighbors rooting against each other and players competing against their pals. Harrison, Hock and Hobbs attended Southwest Junior High together.
"It's always fun to play against Katelyn," Harrison said. "Me and her are really good friends. So it adds a little to it."
Beyond the reunion, though, a win would provide momentum and improve seeding for both teams as they head into next week's substate games.
"It's a fun way to end the season," Duncan said. "But the reality is next week is even the potentially bigger matchup."