Last season, the Free State High girls basketball team captured first place in the annual Firebird Winter Classic for the first time since the tournament’s inception in 2000.
Though the Firebirds are defending champs heading into the 11th year of the Winter Classic — a three-day tournament that begins today at FSHS — this year’s roster bears little resemblance.
The Firebirds, who play at 6:30 p.m. against Highland Park, return only two starters (juniors Lynn Robinson and Jackie Garcia) from the senior-laden team that topped Wichita Northwest in the finals a season ago.
“I was part of that team last year,” injured senior Paige Rothwell said. “I hope the girls go out and play how they know how to play, because we’ve got a good group, so I think we’ll be good.”
Coach Bryan Duncan said before this season that youth would never be an excuse, not that the Firebirds (5-4) have needed one.
That hasn’t changed heading into the Winter Classic, either, even though every team in the talented seven-team field boasts a winning record, including Highland Park (7-2).
“I certainly think our motivation is going to be extremely high for our game tomorrow,” Duncan said. “I think we’re going to see a very well played game on our part against a quality opponent in Highland Park.”
Following a tough loss in a makeup game at Shawnee Mission Northwest on Monday, the Firebirds were back at practice with a renewed focus.
“After Monday night’s game, it was kind of like a wakeup call,” Robinson said at practice on Wednesday. “We need to come to every game prepared. And we’re ready to bring it on Thursday.”
Current sophomore starters Kennedy Kirkpatrick and Abbey and Chelsea Casady made some contributions late last season when freshman were allowed to begin playing varsity sports, and now are huge pieces of the Firebird rotation.
As are sophomores Alexa Gaumer, Courtney Hoag and A’Liyah Rogers.
Now, two more freshmen – Scout Wiebe and Kionna Coleman – who have played a handful of varsity minutes so far this season, may be leaned on a bit more than usual over the three-game stretch.
“We’re not as concerned with them being freshman,” Duncan said. “We believe they’re ready to play now.”
Duncan compared the additions of Wiebe and Coleman to the situation with his five freshman last season.
“When you really break it down,” Duncan said. “Those two playing this year is really no different than the majority of our varsity starters and players is that this is their first year playing (a lot), too.
The upstart Firebirds are aiming to finish on the right side of the bracket, with aspirations of eventually defending their title, and aren’t shying away from the tough competition they’ll face in the days ahead.
“No matter where we end up, all three games are going to be a challenge,” Duncan said. “But that’s what we’ve wanted all year and that’s been the expectations for our kids. And I think they look forward to it.”