Emporia — Christian Ballard has been an intimidating force for opposing teams in the Free State High boys basketball team's three playoff games.
The senior center has averaged just under 17 points and about 10 rebounds in the postseason. But he hasn't faced anyone five inches taller than him yet.
When Free State takes on Blue Valley West at 8:15 tonight in the semifinals of the Class 6A state tournament, Ballard likely will match up against Robert Lewandowski, a 6-foot-9 junior center.
"He's skilled in many facets," Free State coach Chuck Law said of Lewandowski. "They use him as a passer and a screener, and then they move him down to the post."
It should be interesting to see how the Firebirds respond to Lewandowski's defensive presence as well. Law said the junior was a solid defender who stayed on his feet and also blocked shots.
Free State has made it a priority to feed the ball into the post to Ballard and junior forward Weston Wiebe. Even with Lewandowski occupying space on defense, don't expect the Firebirds to shy away from the paint.
"There's no reason to change the formula at this stage of a game," Law said. "We've played against teams that have had big guys. We won't change the formula, but we may have to tweak it. Not only is he big inside, but they're a tremendous man-to-man defensive team."
Despite the intriguing post matchup, Law stressed the other positions on the floor as arguably the most critical.
"Everybody's going to focus on that, but it's the other four guys who are going to make what they do possible, finding them with post passes and freeing up space for those guys to work," Law said. "It's not going to be Robert Lewandowski versus Christian Ballard. It's been a team effort for us that's gotten us where we are."
Free State defeated Shawnee Mission Northwest and Olathe South in sub-state before knocking out top-seeded Shawnee Mission West, 53-35, Wednesday night. The victory represented Free State's first state basketball playoff victory in the school's 10-year existence.
Blue Valley West (16-7) has won six games in a row. To put Law's comment regarding the Jaguars' man-to-man defense into perspective, BV West knocked Shawnee Mission East, the No. 1-ranked team in the state, out of its sub-state bracket. The score? 38-35.
Free State (12-11) has played exceptional defense lately as well. In the last two playoff games, the Firebirds have held Olathe South and SM West, two of the Top 10 teams in the state, to an average of 34.5 points. Free State held SM West to two points in the second quarter Wednesday night.
Senior guards Kyle Schreiner and Nick Devin have been particularly steadfast on defense, forcing steals and generating fast breaks.
"They're kind of establishing a standard for Free State basketball," Law said of Devin and Schreiner. "It has a lot to do with them being seniors and wanting to go out on a great note."
Law said his team had about 12 hours to celebrate and reflect on Wednesday's victory. The team went right back to work in the gym on Thursday.
"One thing we stressed (Wednesday) night was to keep our eyes on the prize," Law said. "We're not satisfied getting there, and we're not satisfied with winning one game. When there are four teams left, you have to lay yourself on the line and go for it. Hopefully, things go your way."