If this was another game, Free State High’s boys basketball players might be more concerned with the prospect of proving their No. 5 ranking in Class 6A against a fellow top-10 team.
But this is the City Showdown.
Both FSHS and rival Lawrence could be winless, unheralded and downright dismal, and it would still be the most anticipated matchup on the regular-season schedule.
So, no. Lawrence’s No. 6 ranking won’t be what gets the Firebirds hyped to play tonight at 7, at LHS.
“We want to come out with a high intensity and have bragging rights, really all year,” Free State senior guard Reshawn Caro said. “You just don’t want to lose to your rival.”
Both Lawrence (3-1) and Free State (3-1) are coming off a loss headed into the last game of December, and nothing would feel more satisfying for either side than winning tonight.
The only thing that could take away from the spectacle of it all would be the absence of a marquee player, and FSHS coach Chuck Law thinks he could be down a man at The Jungle. Senior Firebirds forward Khadre Lane has battled with a right leg injury all week. His typically explosive, 6-foot-4 frame has been hobbled to the point that Law labeled Lane’s availability as somewhere in the questionable to doubtful range.
If Lane can’t play, Free State senior starters Caro, Keith Loneker, Cole Moreano and Blake Winslow would welcome junior Weston Hack to the mix, as they did on Saturday, in an overtime home loss to Lansing (No. 2 in 5A).
“We would just have to find other ways to score,” Caro said of missing Lane’s slashing and ability to get to the foul line, “and work together like we know how to.”
Regardless of who is on the floor for FSHS, Law knows his team will have its hands full.
“I think it’s gonna be an outstanding game,” Law said. “For the casual fan it will be incredibly enjoyable, for the guys it will be tremendously fun to play in, and for the coaching staffs, about as stressful as a night as one could imagine.”
Free State would like to rein in the talented LHS backcourt of junior Anthony Bonner and sophomore Justin Roberts. As Law pointed out, those two and fellow starters Connor Henrichs, Price Morgan and John Barbee can be explosive.
“You don’t come out 14-0 against Highland Park and not have something going for you,” the FSHS coach said, referring to Lawrence’s 60-56 loss to the No. 1 team in 5A on Saturday. “That certainly has me not necessarily getting the best night’s sleep and has my stomach churning a little bit, trying to figure out how we’re gonna stop those guys.”
Lions coach Mike Lewis could relate. When he looks at the Firebirds, he sees a team that went from a seven-game losing streak to a state-tournament berth last winter.
“They got on a roll at the end of last year, and they understand what it takes to be successful in who they are,” Lewis said, adding FSHS can maximize its strengths from game to game depending on matchups. “They do have a little maturity on us and maybe a little game-time experience.”
The rivals split their two meetings last season, each winning at home, and when Bonner thinks back on those clashes, he remembers the physical style Free State brought to the court.
“With them, I think they have a lot of weapons. I respect them a lot. I think they’re a great team,” Bonner said. “You’ve gotta play hard against them, because any given night someone could come out and play a good game. It’s definitely gonna be a tough matchup and I’m really looking forward to it.”
With four straight days of practice leading up to the first rivalry game of the season, the Firebirds have focused on defense, and coming up with ways to slow down Lawrence’s perimeter-oriented attack. The Firebirds felt like their lack of defense and rebounding led to their overtime loss to Lansing.
Caro said FSHS hopes to use its length against the drive-or-shoot mastery of Bonner and Roberts, but the Firebirds know there will be more to it than that.
“Justin likes to drive the ball and kick it,” Caro said. “That opens a lot for their shooters, like Ben (Rajewski).”
Neither team has a traditional go-to post player, so Lawrence expects an uptempo game, with guards and small forwards occupying the vast majority of the positions on the floor for both teams. Bonner said that would be right in the Lions’ wheelhouse.
“That’s definitely good for us, and Price (Morgan, in the post) is a fast player, too, he’s not just a big guy,” Bonner said. “I think we can use that to our advantage.”