As members of Free State High’s girls basketball team make the rounds to various holiday gatherings during their winter break and catch up with family members and friends, they’ll have nothing but good things to report about their season.
The Firebirds finished the December portion of their schedule with a perfect 5-0 record, winning four of those games by 17 points or more.
Coach Bryan Duncan said the team’s early success is significant, because the quick start has generated excitement among the players, amped up chemistry and even made it easier to get excited about going to practice. Plus, the five-game winning streak serves as evidence that the Firebirds have made progress from last year, when they finished 11-11.
“It really provides confidence for the players,” Duncan said, “to recognize the fact that they do have the ability to be successful.”
During an up-and-down 2010-11 season, with a young team, the coach knew there would be growing pains. This year, though, that experience has allowed Free State — with its top seven from last year still intact — to be more consistent in practices and games.
With seniors Lynn Robinson and Jackie Garcia, juniors Kennedy Kirkpatrick, Abbey and Chelsea Casady and A’Liyah Rogers, as well as sophomore Scout Wiebe all back, Duncan obviously liked the pieces FSHS had in place.
So far, the coach has been impressed with their ability to play together.
“It’s been really fun to watch them share the ball and make the extra pass,” Duncan said. “I think winning is the key ingredient for all of them. It’s just been very unselfish play and a team-first approach.”
Kirkpatrick, averaging a team-leading 21.5 points and six rebounds, said the Firebirds have been enjoying themselves.
“We expected to be pretty good having the same team as last year, but I didn’t expect to have blowout wins and be having this much fun,” she said.
In victories over Topeka Seaman, Shawnee Heights, Lansing, Lawrence and Platte County (Mo.), Free State has outscored its opponents, 315-173 (an average margin of 63-35).
Garcia said the team’s defense and its ability to turn defensive rebounds or steals into chances to get out and run have been crucial to the Firebirds’ success.
“Teams have difficulty keeping up with us,” she said.
It also helps, Garcia added, to have a rotation of seven guards who can fill different roles.
Kirkpatrick does a bit of everything. Robinson (11.5 points a game) can score and excels at pressuring opposing point guards. Chelsea Casady (11 points, five rebounds) operates well on the baseline. Abbey Casady defends the post well. Wiebe (eight points, six rebounds) can mix it up in the paint and grab boards. And Rogers has quick hands and feet on the perimeter.
As for Garcia, she said she just tries to drive whenever possible to force opposing defenses to collapse, so she can find open shooters like Kirkpatrick or Robinson.
The total team effort has propelled FSHS to a No. 4 ranking in Class 6A from the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association.
Kirkpatrick said the Firebirds are having fun, and their coach wants it to stay that way.
“Duncan has been talking to us about keeping our composure, not being too cocky,” she said.
He also has let them know the schedule will get tougher.
“I think our players all realize that we’ve had a great start, but there’s a long way to go,” Duncan said.
Tougher competition (so far, Free State’s best victory is a 39-30 win over Class 5A No. 7 Topeka Seaman) is looming when the winter break ends. FSHS returns to the floor Jan. 6, with a home game against No. 9 Olathe East. Following a Jan. 10 home game with Shawnee Mission South, the Firebirds travel to No. 1 Olathe Northwest Jan. 13.
Kirkpatrick thinks Free State’s 5-0 start should help it in the weeks to come, as the team makes its way toward the postseason.
“We now know we can go out and play with good teams,” she said. “I think we knew it from the start, we just kind of put it all together in the last couple games.”