High School Sports

High School Sports

Tight-knit tradition: Firebirds’ postgame soccer circle part of bigger picture

After ending a double-overtime, 1-1 tie with Mill Valley, Free State High’s soccer team gathers at midfield on Oct. 18 at Free State. The midfield gathering at the conclusion of games has become a regular event for the team and symbolizes togetherness, respect and seeing the big picture in life.

After ending a double-overtime, 1-1 tie with Mill Valley, Free State High’s soccer team gathers at midfield on Oct. 18 at Free State. The midfield gathering at the conclusion of games has become a regular event for the team and symbolizes togetherness, respect and seeing the big picture in life.

October 26, 2010


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.


inspire 7 years, 5 months ago

What a refreshing change for this team. My kids didn't play soccer but i still knew of the reputation and troubles with the previous coach. Thank goodness for Coach Barah and his commitment to what really matters.

TriniTeeChica 7 years, 5 months ago

I couldn't agree more that Coach Barah will provide immeasurable amounts of leadership and inspiration for the members of the Free State soccer program, as I know him both as a former player and friend. I am a bit unsure, however, of the "reputation and troubles with the previous coach." Speaking from personal experience as a graduate of Free State and a 4-year varsity soccer player, I cannot imagine playing for anyone but "the previous coach" and, in fact, turned down collegiate opportunities to play soccer because I will never admire anyone more than the aforementioned coach.

No single individual during my time at Free state shed more light on what "refreshing change" and true "commitment" look like than he did. I simply challenge you to discuss "troubles with the previous coach" with former players, rather than (I'm assuming) their parents who, perhaps, have trouble with his meritocratic philosophy of coaching; I know that I do not stand alone in feeling as though he's been one of the most influential adults in my entire life and envy Blue Valley Southwest's acquisition of such an outstanding teacher, coach, father-figure, and friend.

ranger73 7 years, 5 months ago

funny that this is such a huggy huggy kumbuyah good thing since it's high school soccer, but if Gill did this he would be run out of lawrence on a rail-not that the wanna be fans aren't already to run him out of town without a chance.

otto 7 years, 5 months ago

I played for coach Bill Freeman at LHS in footbal -- Probably one of the toughest men I've ever known. We all held hands in the huddle. Wonder if they still do that today?

Maxandwillie 7 years, 5 months ago

the" reputation and the troubles with the previous coach". please share.

Clickker 7 years, 5 months ago

I heard the previous coach's act did not play well with the girls. Did ok with the guys, but was maybe a little too abrasive with the girls. That was told to me by a 'possibly' disgruntaled parent, so take it for what its worth.

Shelley Bock 7 years, 5 months ago

My two daughters played for the "previous coach". One was very successful through 4 years of play on varsity. She liked the coach because he was demanding. And, it taught her how to confront the boss when she disagreed with him. She continues to be successful in the soccer world.

My other daughter played two years and then retired. She wasn't mad with the coach, just had lost interest in being on the pitch. She left the team with acceptance of the Coach and the opportunity to return if she should ever change her mind. She didn't. She. maintained a good relationship with the coach and respected him because he challenged her to perform better. She didn't lose her interest in watching the game since we are attending a professional game this evening somewhere far, far away from Lawrence.

Each coach has their different philosophies. Both daughters took away valuable experiences from their time on the pitch. One was very successful, the other less so. But, they both learned life lessons and that's what it is all about.

I think that the previous coach did better with the boys than the girls because he took the ladies out of their comfort zone. He's still learning how to coach girls. Now days, the ladies are willing to be more challenged. I believe that there are different methods to coaching boys and girls which favors the coach who is more willing to adapt.

Time will tell.

LHSlion 7 years, 5 months ago

It's not fair to say they had a meltdown vs LHS. The lions obviously played a hard game.

hail2oldku 7 years, 5 months ago

Meltdown - (noun) a breakdown of self control

Nobody ever said the Lions didn't play hard. It may even be deduced that their hard play contributed to the Firebirds meltdown. It cannot however be disputed that the Firebirds lost their composure.

Gonzalez10 7 years, 5 months ago

I think parents gossip about that stuff and they actually rarely know about what the previous' coach did and they rarely know about the soccer part too. What the previous' coach did was build a team that can play against KC high schools and not get run over by them. You can see that because for the past 9 years he was able to win 3 regional championships and getting to the state championship. I think on the girls side, he didnt push them as hard as he could to do the same thing that he did with the boys team. Barah now took over of a program and built a new legacy with certain rules that made us a team that care about each other and at the same time get on the pitch and take care of business. They are both great coaches.

Hop2It 7 years, 5 months ago

I don't have a child at Free State, but I have never heard anyone who doesn't didn't like Coach Barah. He is absolutely fantastic as a person and coach. He approaches everyone as a human being first, and as a player second. Like Clikker I heard the rumors about the previous coach, especially with girls. However... lets be like Coach Barah and focus on the positive. Lets move on.

Matt Bowers 7 years, 5 months ago

As a high school varsity soccer coach in NC, I've learned one thing over the past seven years...parents only love you when you play their kid. I appreciate what the former player said about his coach, I had someone say something similar about me in the yearbook last year, and it was nice to know I had that impact. Coaches make hard decisions, most questions about playing time and the rotation get answered in practice. Whatever works for a team, is what that team needs. Keep up the good work coaches.

Rock Chalk

Stephen Roberts 7 years, 5 months ago

Different coaches, different methods. Both coaches spend time with the students both in acdemics and athletics. Good luck to both.

chetrico79 7 years, 5 months ago

From a parent's p.o.v., a significant difference off-the-pitch between the two coaches was/is their personal connection to the majority of parents: cold/exclusiveness vs Barah's warmth/inclusiveness. Additionally, the previous coach (in spite of his teams' excellent records) at soccer banquets while discussing each player's performance for the season and potential for the future, would frequently criticize a player, often with sarcasm, in front of peers, staff and parents. It was difficult to sit through - even though our player, who was satisfied with playing time, was not a subject of belittling - and there was always a cringe factor of "I can't believe he said that!" We're so very glad Coach B is here now and hopefully he will have a long and continued successful tenure at Free State.

Gonzalez10 7 years, 5 months ago

Yes I understand that, i was part of that and there were moments like that where a lot of people were like "why are you saying that" but that was his sense of humor, believe it or not, i'm still a player here at fs and i was also criticized or mainly joked around with sarcasm coming from him, so i think he did it with all kinds of players not just the ones that he admired or not.

chetrico79 7 years, 5 months ago

Your charisma, skill & passion will serve you well into what will certainly be a very bright future, both in and out of soccer. Best of luck finishing out this school year and also in the coming years in college. Now...back to those books!

Maxandwillie 7 years, 5 months ago

From many of the comments it sounds like it was a good time for a change.

APGOVMAN 7 years, 4 months ago

So, a parent whose kid is not on the team and does not play soccer has a negative comment about the previous coach. Huh? My real problem is with the last line of the first comment, "Thank goodness for Coach Barah and his commitment to what really matters." Wasn't the previous coach a darn good teacher? Did he he go out of his way to help kids push themselves to do things they never thought they might do, both on and off the field? I do not know the new coach, but he sounds like a nice person, and I wish him great success.

Getting kids to play hard in a competitive situation might require some level of discomfort for the student-athlete. This is why coaching high school sports can be difficult: we have competing expectations from our clients. As a Sunflower coach, I know that some of the kids/parents want to have success on the field/court (wins), and other want to have success (good experience) as well. I would suggest that if your kid plays a varsity sport, the days of juice boxes and player tunnels are over. It does not mean that all fun has ended; some of the other comments indicate the "previous coach" just had different tune to his whistle.

Good grief, let the kid become an adult.

not_that_crazy 7 years, 4 months ago

"So, a parent whose kid is not on the team and does not play soccer has a negative comment about the previous coach. Huh?"

Coach Barah has coached soccer in Lawrence for several years. He was the Coach for the Kansas Soccer Acadamy high school team, so several girls at Lawrence High as well as area towns have played for him. The "previous coach" also coached a competive younger girls team, and still runs the KSA program. The Lawrence soccer commuity is familiar with both coaches.

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