Shortly after the end of each match — regardless of the outcome — Free State High soccer coach Kelly Barah and his team walk toward the center circle at midfield.
The players, coaching staff and managers all wrap their arms around one another’s shoulders and form a circle.
“We just want to preach that it’s not just what happens on the field that we care about, we care about what happens individually with all the players,” Barah says. “If someone is having a hard time, we all gather and rally around them. That’s what the circle is all about.”
Barah introduced the fourth-seeded Firebirds — who play host to a Class 6A regional match against No. 5 Topeka High (5-8-3) at 6 tonight at FSHS — to a mantra of sorts at the beginning of the season.
The phrase now adorns the T-shirts of parents and family members in the crowd and a banner that hangs beside the Firebird bench.
Ubuntu, it reads; “I am who I am because of who we all are.”
Or as Barah explains the phrase: “It’s not about you, it’s about the team.
“It’s about us caring about each other in that circle.”
Meaning behind the phrase
The phrase is no stranger to athletics, of course; the 2008 Boston Celtics, for instance, chanted “ubuntu” before every game during their historic run toward an NBA Championship.
That alone didn’t make for an immediate sell with the Firebirds, though.
“At first it’s kind of weird because everyone is used to wanting to score the most goals or make the big play,” junior Trey Vanahill said. “But when we’re all in there with that mentality, trying to support one another and help them play better, it helps you and it kind of grows like that.”
Vanahill said that Barah’s philosophy on being a team works, in part, because of the kind of relationship the coach has forged with his players.
“When he asks you how you’re doing, he really wants to know,” he said, describing Barah as a friend.
Senior keeper Elliott Johnson said he thought it was great that Barah wanted the team to feel like a family.
Even newcomers to the varsity team like senior Alec Heline, who is playing his first season for the soccer team after focusing primarily on basketball, said he felt as if he was a part of the team’s strong bonds.
“I’ve had a lot of fun with coach Barah and everyone here,” he said.
The boys may have needed some time to adjust, but the parents bought into it immediately.
“It’s just a great way for everyone to come together, and it energizes the program,” said Pam Kaufman, senior Hunter Peirce’s mother.
Senior Preston Newsome’s mother, Tecile Newsome, said what really impressed her was Barah’s plan to unite the entire soccer program; both boys and girls varsity, junior varsity and the C team are viewed as one organization.
“There just seems to be a lot of attention to all three teams, whereas before it was mostly on the two varsity teams,” she said.
Barah acknowledged before a midweek practice that support from family members has helped strengthen the team’s sense of unity.
He stopped setting up cones for a moment, and looked out toward the bleachers, which, at the time, were empty.
“The soccer family is bigger than what you see on the field; it’s all out there,” he said.
More to it than soccer
On Sept. 22 against Lawrence High, several Firebirds, frustrated by missed scoring opportunities, began questioning calls by the officials and were booked with yellow cards.
Five were handed out, three coming in the last 20 minutes.
After the game ended in a scoreless tie, several players said they were embarrassed, though mostly because of the result on the scoreboard and the effort on the field.
Barah was upset for a different reason.
“We’ve always prided ourselves in terms of being in control and controlling our emotions,” Barah said after the game.
But to err is human, and Barah acknowledged that, if handled properly, adversity can serve as a strengthening force.
“It was good that it happened early during the season as opposed to later, because we definitely realized we need to care about each other more and not let the referee or the other team get into our head,” he said.
The Firebirds bounced back from their meltdown against the Lions with back-to-back victories the following week.
Sitting at 6-8-2 isn’t quite where the Firebirds hoped they’d be at this point in the season.
But there has been one constant.
Whether the Firebirds dismantle a team as they did Shawnee Mission North (6-0) on Oct. 5 or finish in a 1-1 tie as they did against Mill Valley on Oct. 18, FSHS will make its way toward midfield 10 minutes after the game.
Same goes for tonight against Topeka. They will link arms and huddle into a circle.
“There’s a lot more to it than just soccer,” Vanahill said.
“Coach talks about how it’s not about wins and losses as much as growing as people and coming together.
“And like in the circle after the game, its good to know we’re all a team and all together,” he added.