Two Firebirds sign with UMKC

From left, Free State seniors Gretel Briand, Ashli Hill and Megan Smith signed national letters of intent on Wednesday at FSHS. Briand signed with Defiance College in Ohio to play volleyball, while Hill (basketball) and Smith (softball) signed with University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Ashli Hill has known for months that she’d be playing basketball next season at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Something about making it official, though, brought out a dose of sentimentality in the 6-foot-5 Free State standout.

“You can see the glow on Ashli’s face today,” said Firebirds girls basketball coach Bryan Duncan, after Hill signed a national letter of intent to play basketball for the ‘Roos next season during a ceremony Wednesday at Free State High School. “She’s extremely happy. She’s getting the opportunity to play Div. I ball, and that’s an extremely big deal.”

Hill provided a dominant offensive option alongside leading scorer Chantay Caron this season, averaging 9.7 points per game and a Sunflower League-best 10.2 rebounds for the Firebirds, who advanced to the Class 6A state tournament for the third time in five years.

Her biggest impact, though, came on the defensive end, where she altered the complexion of several games this season with her ability to block shots. She finished with seven blocks in a regular-season finale win over rival Lawrence High, and posted 10 blocks against Shawnee Mission West in the finals of the sub-state tournament the following week.

“Her size, athleticism and ability to block shots are Div. I-ready,” said Duncan, who recently began twice-weekly workouts with Hill in an attempt to prepare the player for the grind of the collegiate game. “I think her offensive skill set and core strength are still a work in progress, but I think her upside is tremendous at the next level.”

With her signing out of the way, Hill can now turn her attention to preparing to make the jump to the next level.

Hill, who originally committed to play at Oklahoma State before switching her commitment to UMKC this year, said she hasn’t discussed the likelihood of playing immediately for the ‘Roos, but hopes to contribute as soon as possible.

“You just have to work hard,” Hill said. “And hopefully my hard work will get me playing (time).”

Smith signs for softball

By the time she’d committed to play softball next season at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Free State senior Megan Smith knew she’d found the right fit.

That’s not to say, however, that it didn’t take some convincing before Smith agreed to give the school a chance.

“Every year, my dad (told) me to look at UMKC, and I never did,” said Smith, who signed Wednesday with the ‘Roos during a ceremony at Free State High. “And then finally I went on a visit, and I ended up there.”

“I knew I was going to love mostly any softball program (and) just playing in college in general,” Smith added. “But the school really sold me, and I’m going to be really excited to be there this fall.”

In Smith, who also considered a number of Div. II schools before deciding on UMKC, the ‘Roos will be getting a left-handed pitcher who has become a staple of the area softball scene in recent years, earning Journal-World all-area honorable mention honors following her junior season.

“It makes you feel good,” said former Free State softball coach Pam Pine, who stepped down last year after 12 seasons as the Firebirds’ coach. “That’s the ultimate goal as a coach, help allow (players) to do something they want to do and get an education.”

And Smith, who’ll try to help the Firebirds improve upon a 2-6 start this spring, will be entering what she feels is an optimal situation next fall.

“Everyone says when you find a college, you know,” Smith said. “And I just knew UMKC was going to be the one.”