As is the case for most teams, no one knows for certain what lies ahead for each of Free State’s winter sports teams. There might be some uncertainty surrounding the Firebirds, but that won’t make them any less ready to compete as seasons get started this week.
A look at four of the five winter sports Free State fields (bowling doesn’t begin until January):
Free State boys basketball coach Chuck Law expects his team to be a work in progress.
It’s not that Law doesn’t believe in his guys, it’s just that very few have actually played on the varsity level. Senior guards Brett Frantz and Shawn Knighton played extensively last season, and senior guards Tyler Self and Cameron Dabney played some for the varsity, but that’s about it. Law described the rest of the roster as “16 other guys that never stepped foot in a varsity game before.”
That’s why he said it will take some time for the Firebirds to develop.
“I think it’s gonna be a good basketball team,” Law said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be a good basketball team in December. It’s gonna take awhile to piece together.”
Some other potential pieces for Free State include senior forward Gabe Patterson and juniors Logan Bannister, Wilson Hack and Kyle McFarland, all of whom at least were on the 17-player varsity roster a year ago. Law said the unproven commodities for FSHS have the physical skills to be successful, but they still have a lot to learn about basketball.
Their coach hopes the first few weeks of the season will serve as a successful training program.
“What happens in December is about going and preparing for what happens in late January and February,” he said, “and hopefully we’ll be a good team by the time we get there.”
Expectations this season for the Free State girls, coach Bryan Duncan said, are extremely high. But the Firebirds won’t exactly have a traditional look on the court.
That should be fairly evident at each game’s tipoff, when 5-foot-10 junior guard Kennedy Kirkpatrick jumps center.
While Free State has plenty of experience, with all five starters returning from last season’s team, the Firebirds don’t have any post players ready to make an impact. Their top seven players are guards.
The five returning starters are Kirkpatrick, senior Lynn Robinson, junior twin sisters Abbey and Chelsea Casady and senior Jackie Garcia, whom Duncan praised for working hard to rehab an ACL tear she suffered this past spring.
The coach noted that junior A’Liyah Rogers and sophomore Scout Wiebe also will figure into Free State’s seven-guard rotation, and both could contend for starting spots.
With a void in the post, the Firebirds will have to play a distinctive style: “A lot of coaches talk about how they want to run and play full-court defense,” Duncan said, “but we do that out of necessity.”
FSHS also will need to find ways to get points in the paint without posting up. Duncan said the guards can’t stay out on the perimeter and will have to get to the hoop with cuts and dribble penetration.
Defensively, Duncan said he is thankful for his team’s big guards, as team rebounding and interior defense will be crucial to Free State’s success.
“The good things is we have girls, one in particular, Abbey Casady, who can really guard the post,” the coach said.
There are only four seniors among Free State’s boys swimmers and divers, but a youthful team under the guidance of coach Annette McDonald has enough returning state medalists and qualifiers to keep the Firebirds optimistic.
Juniors Connor Munk and Ben Sloan, as well as sophomore Canaan Campbell, medaled at state in 2010, and senior diver Austin Neidow qualified for state last year.
Plus, FSHS has some key scorers coming back, including senior co-captains Noah Benham and Andrew Roman, and junior Nick Becker and sophomore Kyle Yoder.
Said McDonald: “There’s lots of variety in what the swimmers can compete in and be successful in.”
As a senior, Neidow is the most experienced diver, while Sloan and Campbell are expected to play prominent roles in Free State’s scoring. McDonald said Sloan specializes in the butterfly and 200 individual medley and is improving in breaststroke and freestyle, while Campbell has looked strong with all his strokes and can help the team in any event.
More than half the team is comprised of freshmen and sophomores, so McDonald expects some new Firebirds to emerge as well. With a youthful team, she knows this season won’t be easy.
“There are some powerhouses out there that are going to be real challenging when we compete against them,” the coach said.
With four returning state qualifiers, the Free State wrestling program is in search of more success this winter. Second-year coach Mike Gillman said he wants more Firebirds to join Andrew McLees (132 pounds), Drew Botello (113), Spencer Wilson (182) and Colton Steele (138) at state this time around.
“I have really high expectations for my kids,” Gillman said. “We want to get as many kids as we can to qualify for state. That’s always a goal for them.”
Free State’s leaders on the mat as they prepare for the start of the season, the coach added, have been McLees, who has performed well at practices; Wilson, who took second place at state as a 160-pounder last year; and senior Marcus Bones, the Firebirds’ 195-pounder.
Gillman said he is excited about the team’s youth.
“We’ve got a lot of youngsters, too, coming up that I’m real excited about,” he said. “We only have a few seniors, so we’re a really young team right now.”
Some wrestlers currently in position to start for FSHS include: 145-pounder Marquez White, 152-pounder Ben Soukup, 160-pounder Stan Skwarlo, 170-pounder Seth Holiday, 220-pounder Tyler Sampson and heavyweight Sterling Ozark.
Gillman hopes the Firebirds can round into a competitive group.
“We’re hoping to finish in the top five in the Sunflower League,” he said.