Last year’s Free State High girls gymnastics team was close. The ’08 FSHS football team was even closer. And the girls cross country team was in the mix, as well.
Unfortunately for the Firebirds, none of those teams were able to bring a fall sports state championship trophy back to Lawrence.
In 13 years of existence, the Free State athletic department has won three team state championships and been close dozens more times. State titles in boys swimming (2004), baseball (2006) and girls swimming (2009) brought tremendous pride and excitement to the northwest corner of Lawrence, but the Firebird kingdom never has tasted that kind of success during the fall. Boys swimming won its title during the winter months and baseball and girls swimming won in the spring.
According to those who are on the brink of opening yet another promise-filled fall, 2009 presents an excellent opportunity for the trend to change.
“You used to come back in the fall and people would talk about which team has a shot, but, realistically, maybe even that team didn’t have a shot,” FSHS cross country coach Steve Heffernan said. “But now there so many strong programs in the fall that everybody expects success. And that’s been really exciting.”
Heffernan’s crew has been directly responsible for that.
Last year, the Free State girls finished third at the Class 6A state meet. This year, with nearly his entire top 10 returning, Heffernan said his girls are in a position to challenge for that elusive state title. What’s more, he believes they are aware of that and may even be gunning for it.
“I’m sure that would be extra motivation for them,” he said. “Fall tends to set the tone. The football team really set the tone last year and I think girls cross country did as well. I think those programs and others have always been excited to be the first ones out of the gate, the first ones that get a shot at winning a state title for that school year.”
Like Heffernan’s squad, the Free State gymnastic team returns the bulk of its squad from last year’s third-place state finisher. That team, in addition to tying the program’s best-ever finish at state, set a school record for points on the biggest stage.
That, along with the drive to deliver, has this year’s group even more focused.
“Last year, getting that team score was already a big deal,” junior Kelcy Bowers said. “But knowing we were that close to a state title just adds a lot of drive and determination to this season. I don’t want to jinx it, but I think we have a really great shot.”
Both teams feature girls with state championship experience. Drue Davis, the Firebirds’ top all-around gymnast, won an individual state title in the pole vault last spring. Also last spring, senior cross country standout Morgan Flannigan played a huge role in the Firebirds winning the state swimming title.
Both Heffernan and FSHS gymnastics coach Kathy Johnson said having girls with that kind of experience in leadership positions could only help.
“Just Morgan’s work ethic is the thing the other kids notice and then they kind of put two and two together and realize that because she works so hard good things happen,” Heffernan said. “She simplifies it a little bit and kind of grounds us. Because of her, the rest of the kids realize that it doesn’t take some mystical event for us to win a state championship. You just have to work hard.”
That’s been the motto this offseason for the Free State football team, which continually talks about being even more hungry to get back to the state title game after bringing home the runner-up trophy in ‘08.
In addition to a sleeper of a volleyball team, a young, but talented girls tennis squad, a girls golf team equipped with depth and experience and a boys soccer team on the rise, it appears it will be only a matter of time before one of those fall title trophies finds its way to Free State, which is just fine with Heffernan.
“Our principal and just about everyone at the school would tell you that academics is the first priority here,” he said. “But I think they’d also admit that when the extra-curricular activities are going well the whole school is just a lot more excited about what’s going on and that’s been neat to see.”