Tittrington: Firebirds big fans of bronze

? The list of people who have no use for consolation games at the Kansas State High School Activities Association state basketball tournaments is a long one, full of administrators, coaches, players, fans and journalists who see no point in two teams battling for third place 18 hours after watching their dreams of winning a state championship come to a screeching halt.

Of course, a big reason for that is the unnecessary existence of six classes of competition in a state as sparsely populated as Kansas, where, in the top two classes, teams need only to outlast 31 competitors to win a state title – setting up a faulty belief system that anything short of that accomplishment is an unmitigated failure.

Fortunately, a collection of 24 teenagers decked out in green and white didn’t buy into that premise Saturday in White Auditorium. Instead, the young men and women who suited up for the Free State High basketball teams seized their final chances to compete this winter, giving greater credence to character, competitive spirit and school pride than the color of the medals that ultimately dangled from around their necks.

In doing so, they provided two perfect capstones to their respective 2006-07 seasons.

“I think getting third place is the best thing that could have happened to us this year,” said Free State senior guard Lauren Kimball, bronze medal proudly on display following a 44-38 victory against Shawnee Mission West that put the wraps on her high school basketball career. “Third place is great. One thing we always talked about is, there’s only two teams that get to end their season on a win.”

Which is why, following their loss to nationally ranked Wichita Heights in Friday night’s Class 6A semifinals, the Firebirds didn’t mope around their team hotel and lament what might have been. Instead, they displayed the wisdom of a mature, senior-laden ballclub, latching onto the belief the only thing better than winning the first state playoff game in program history would be adding a companion piece 48 hours later.

“I think it’s a testament to the character of our kids,” said Free State coach Bryan Duncan. “It was very important that we won today and ended it on a successful note.”

It was also a very important lesson for the next team waiting to take the floor.

While Duncan’s squad scratched and clawed through a challenging fourth quarter to secure its third-place trophy, his counterpart, Free State boys coach Chuck Law, made sure his own team was out of the locker room and in the stands, watching the action unfold.

“I wanted our guys to see how much winning third place meant to our girls,” Law said. “I wanted them to understand that was a feeling they could experience an hour-and-a-half later if they brought enough energy and enough focus.”

The message clearly got through. Playing what Law labeled one of their best games of the season, the Firebirds forgot all about their heartbreaking loss to Blue Valley West in Friday night’s semis, adding their own piece of hardware to the growing Free State trophy case with a 64-51 victory against Washburn Rural.

With it came a collection of senior memories to last a lifetime: Christian Ballard’s funky post-dunk jog down the floor, seldom-used guard Jamar Reese’s well deserved standing ovation after his fourth-quarter cameo, even a smile from stone-faced Kyle Schreiner – but only after the picture-taking was complete.

Still believe they were just a pair of meaningless consolation games?