Although the Firebirds are mired in a 16-game losing streak, they have had their share of near wins:
- Dec. 20: 74-64 (OT) L vs. Lawrence
- Jan. 6: 53-45 L at BV West
- Jan. 9: 49-46 L at Olathe North
- Jan. 23: 54-47 L vs. SM East
- Jan. 24: 43-40 L vs. Manhattan
- Feb. 6: 40-37 L at SM South
- Feb. 13: 52-46 L vs. Leavenworth
By now, words don’t seem to make much difference.
Nor do they begin to tell the story.
Saying what went wrong, how this happened or why that happened only seems to plunge the knife deeper into the wound.
Tuesday night, the Free State High boys basketball team lost its 16th straight game, falling to Shawnee Mission North, 53-44, on Senior Night at home.
The fact the Indians entered the game with a 2-14 record only made the nine-point loss hurt worse. But in reality, after playing for 71 days without experiencing victory, the Firebirds have lost the ability to determine the different levels of dejection.
“I don’t think anyone on this team has ever been through something like this,” senior captain Douglas Compton said. “And because of that we don’t know what to do.”
Compton said his first instinct was for the team to lean on its seniors. But he admitted that, in this case, that might not be the easiest thing to do.
“We don’t have a Christian Ballard (Class of 2007) or a Weston Wiebe (Class of 2008) to fall back on,” said Compton, referring to two of the Firebirds’ most notable names of recent seasons. “So we’re left to figure it out on our own and it’s tough.”
Things like this happen in high school sports. At schools throughout the country, good and bad spells go in cycles and a team that finds itself in the state semifinals one year can occupy a spot in the basement as quickly as two seasons later.
That’s exactly what has happened to the Firebirds, third-place finishers at the 2007 Class 6A state tournament in Emporia. And the reasons are many. Included among them are not things like lack of talent, effort or heart from the coaches or players.
No matter what the score or what point in the game it is, the Firebirds play hard — particularly on defense. That, players say, is the only thing that has kept them from going insane during this difficult stretch.
“We’re definitely doing it for ourselves,” Connor Monarez said. “And seeing the guy next to you play hard makes you want to play hard, too. We may be 1-16 but we still have our dignity and we’re going to play until the final horn blows.”
During the Firebirds’ 16-game skid, they’ve lost six games by eight points or less, including taking two of the league’s most talented teams to the wire in a 40-37 loss to SM South and a 52-46 loss to Leavenworth last week.
Free State’s toughest losses came at the most critical times.
A 74-64 overtime defeat to Lawrence High on Dec. 20 sent the Firebirds into winter break on a four-game losing streak. What’s worse, Free State was less than 30 seconds away from winning that one. A victory there puts the Firebirds at 2-3 entering the break and affords them the luxury of feeling good about beating their rival for nearly four weeks. It could have changed the entire season.
Out of the break, the Firebirds had back-to-back close calls. The first came at Blue Valley West, a game the Firebirds led by eight late in the third quarter only to lose, 53-45. The second came three nights later when Free State shot 4-of-19 from the free throw line in a 49-46 loss at Olathe North.
Win either of those games, and perhaps the rest of the season goes a little smoother.
Then again, perhaps not.
This team is young and has shown its inexperience at times. But that can be viewed as a positive. By starting two sophomores (Eric Watson and Alec Heline) and having half of its regular rotation — including leading scorer Nick Hassig — returning next season, there is reason for Free State to be optimistic.
The lumps the team has taken this season will serve them well next season, when these same players take the floor a year stronger and more experienced.
In addition to — and perhaps because of — the team’s youth, the Firebirds have struggled to find a leader and have been drubbed as often as they have played in close ballgames.
“For the most part, our effort is always good,” Compton said. “We always think we can win no matter what the score is.”
With just four games guaranteed the rest of the way, the Firebirds are running out of chances to break the streak and get that elusive second victory. Their next opportunity comes tonight when they hit the road to take on SM West (6-10). After that, they travel to Olathe Northwest (10-7) next Tuesday before wrapping up the regular season at Lawrence High (9-8) on Feb. 27. From there, a likely sub-state match-up with the No. 1 seed will open the postseason.
“I want them to get a win for them,” said fourth-year FSHS coach Chuck Law, who took a 36-31 record into this season. “I don’t want this group of seniors to go out in this particular manner.”