It wouldn’t take a mind-reader to know what Lawrence High’s boys basketball team is thinking about now.
The Lions enter tonight’s 7 p.m. showdown at rival Free State with the baggage of four straight losses in the series — and the final margin in both of last year’s games being one measly point.
LHS senior guards Anthony Buffalomeat, Logan Henrichs and KJ Pritchard have been involved in all four games of the streak. So Free State coach Chuck Law didn’t need a crystal ball to know the Lions will be ready for another crack at his Firebirds.
“I’m sure the seniors have had this marked on their calendar for some time — as anybody would if you’ve lost four straight to your arch-rival,” Law said.
Indeed, Pritchard said the Lions (3-1) have looked forward to this game more than anything.
“You come to the first day of school, and you can’t wait for the Free State versus LHS game,” he said Thursday afternoon, predicting it would be tough for him to sleep the night before the city clash.
As if LHS needed any extra motivation against the Firebirds (2-2), Henrichs said Lawrence’s four-game skid should do it.
“We’ve got to stop it somewhere,” he said.
“The experience last year of losing twice by one point, just leaves the message that we’ve got to do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” Henrichs added.
LHS coach Mike Lewis said the Lions have a fire in their bellies because of their recent setbacks. He is hoping that run of losses will pay off for Lawrence’s three most-experienced seniors, who are now steady and mature influences on the court.
“That’s why we put them in that position as early as sophomores,” Lewis said. “We were building for the future.”
Free State isn’t quite as battle-tested, but senior guards Shawn Knighton, Brett Frantz, Tyler Self and Cameron Dabney all played against LHS last season. Because FSHS lost so many pieces from a year ago, Frantz said, people outside the team — even fellow classmates — have their doubts about the Firebirds’ ability to extend the winning streak to five.
“Everyone expects them (the Lions) to come and blow us out this year,” Frantz said.
However, he added, Free State has other ideas, and the game should be close “no matter what.”
“We’re gonna come out and play hard, with a lot of energy,” Frantz said.
Self acknowledged that the Lions have an array of weapons to throw at FSHS, but he said that doesn’t mean they can’t be contained.
“They’re great players, but we know them,” Self said. “We’ve been playing with and against these guys since we were in elementary school.”
Buffalomeat, Henrichs and Pritchard aren’t the only players Law’s team will have to worry about. Junior guards Shane Willoughby and Jake Mosiman have also contributed to a successful start to the season, as has sophomore center Bryce Montes de Oca. Seniors Logan Smith and Troy Willoughby, junior Tyrone Jenkins and freshman Anthony Bonner have rounded out the rotation.
Law called Montes de Oca, Lawrence’s 6-foot-7 pivot, “a really darn good big guy who eats space and is very skilled.” Between Montes de Oca and the Lions’ perimeter threats, the FSHS coach has been impressed.
“They’ve got all the pieces for a team that can make a run deep into the postseason,” Law said.
As for the Firebirds, their rotation routinely has gone 10 or more deep in their first four games. Senior Gabe Patterson starts in the post, with Dabney, Frantz, Knighton and Self manning the perimeter. Off the bench, Law has turned to sophomore Blake Winslow, juniors Logan Bannister, Kyle McFarland and Wilson Hack, as well as sophomores Joe Dineen and Reshawn Caro.
Lewis, who has twice seen Free State play in person, said one strength for FSHS is its balance, noting there isn’t one dominant player.
“On any given night, any one of those guys could step up and contribute and have a good game and possibly lead them to a win,” Lewis said.
To that point, Law said he wants all the Firebirds filling their roles, expecting that would keep them in the game.
“I don’t think we necessarily need a big night from anybody,” Law said. “We’ve got good players, and we just have to have guys do what it is that they do well.”
There is no question that both sides are amped for renewing the rivalry. That’s the easy part, Law said, about preparing for this game.
“From an energy and attention and desire perspective, there’s not gonna have to be anything said,” Law said.
And, as Lewis pointed out, all the preparation in the world won’t mean squat if the atmosphere of the showdown overwhelms anyone involved.
“You can go in with your plan and your strategy and what you would like to do,” he said, “but you’ve got to be able to, during the game, figure out a way to win and not get caught up in the emotion and the rivalry.”