In high school hoops, there is a fine line between getting hyped for a rivalry game and not letting it become something bigger than it needs to be.
When the girls basketball teams from Free State and Lawrence high schools square off at 5:30 p.m. Friday, it may be THE game for the players, but as far as the coaches for both programs are concerned, the Firebirds and Lions are better off with a business-as-usual approach.
Coach Nick Wood’s LHS team enters Part 1 of the city showdown (the teams will meet again Feb. 24) with a 2-1 record, and, considering the Lions are coming off a one-point loss to Kansas City (Mo.) St. Teresa’s in which they turned the ball over 32 times, Wood said Free State shouldn’t be their primary concern.
“We’ve got to focus on us,” the coach said. “We’ve got to get better.”
That message isn’t lost on the players, but LHS junior Emma Kelly said any time the Lions, who have lost four straight in the series, play the Firebirds, they are more jacked for that game. Still, she said they should play better because of those emotions.
“It’s so nerve-wracking, but exciting at the same time,” Kelly said. “I think it all gives us an extra boost of energy when we play Free State that we don’t have any other game.”
With more people in the stands and interest high on both sides of town, it’s easy to see why the game can be a powder keg of energy for the players involved.
Free State coach Bryan Duncan said each time the rivals meet, he knows the players will be juiced. And that can make for greater unpredictability in the game.
“Sometimes you have kids that might not normally be big-time scorers become big-time scorers one night,” Duncan said. “You really see some strange things happen, and that’s what makes the game so much fun.”
FSHS senior guard Lynn Robinson said the hype surrounding the game hasn’t altered the team’s approach.
“We definitely get more excited for this game,” Robinson admitted, “but we prepare the same as we would for any other game.”
A fellow senior, Jackie Garcia echoed that line of thought.
“We’re definitely focused on just keeping up with what we’re doing,” she said.
Those statements are music to Duncan’s ears.
“I’ve been trying for years to avoid the situation where we practice harder for the Lawrence High game than any other game,” he said, “because that absolutely drives me bonkers.”
If anything is making Wood crazy this week, it might be the thought of Free State’s all-guard attack. The LHS coach said the Firebirds’ up-tempo lineup can be scary. With Robinson, junior Kennedy Kirkpatrick, senior Jackie Garcia, junior twins Abbey and Chelsea Casady, junior A’Liyah Rogers and sophomore Scout Wiebe leading the way, Free State (3-0) is averaging 62 points a game.
“They’re coming,” Wood said of Free State’s fast-paced approach. “Kennedy’s coming, Lynn’s coming, and we’ve got to be ready to get that ball stopped.”
Plus, Wood added, the Firebirds’ lead guards are surrounded with capable teammates.
“They’re all threats. You’ve gotta worry about all five of them,” he said.
Lawrence senior Christina Haswood said the Lions’ transition defense will be crucial Friday night.
“We don’t want them running up and down the court,” she said of the Firebirds.
That will be the first step for LHS. Kelly said half-court defense will be the next step in keeping the game close.
“We’ve just got to lock in on defense, communicate on defense,” Kelly said. “We have to identify their shooters and get on them.”
If Lawrence has an advantage entering the game, it might be its balance. Wood said his team is young enough that it seemingly has someone different step up each night. While junior Monica Howard has been consistent in her scoring, the Lions also have benefited from quality outings from Haswood, juniors Krista Costa and Bri Anderson and sophomore Kionna Coleman. Kelly, junior Kylie Seaman and freshman Marissa Pope also have proven to be key contributors.
According to Wood, Lawrence will need all 12 of its players to be ready against Free State (ranked No. 5 in 6A in the latest KBCA rankings).
“They all need to be able to step up,” the coach said. “It’s a good team we’re playing, and it’s gonna be a big-time environment. We’re not good enough to have one or two girls show up and still have a chance.”