A pivotal member of Free State High’s girls basketball program since she arrived on the scene as a freshman, senior combo guard Kennedy Kirkpatrick has built quite a reputation.
The 5-foot-10 lefty first gained recognition for her three-point marksmanship. Through the years, Kirkpatrick became a more versatile scorer, adding strength and driving ability to her repertoire. This year, she’s even become a distributor, often serving as the Firebirds’ primary ball-handler.
Despite all her abilities and team-leading averages of 13.8 points, 3.9 assists and 2.8 steals, what many people notice most about Kirkpatrick on the court is neither her soft touch nor cross-over dribble. It’s her beaming, usually infectious smile, something she has carried with her since she was a child. A few area referees even call her “Smiley” when they see Kirkpatrick’s familiar grin before a game.
“I have fun when I play. That’s not a secret,” Kirkpatrick said, laughing. “I’m not one to get mad and fired up and pissed off at people. I try to keep positive, and when I start getting down on myself or frustrated with myself, my game is gone, my focus is gone.”
At times, Free State’s senior leader looks so relaxed, coach Bryan Duncan wonders if she gets nervous at all. He considers it a wonderful quality, because her demeanor and smile compliment her game.
“Your teammates and opponents recognize frustration if you wear that the wrong way,” the coach said.
Kirkpatick makes a point to exude positive energy to keep herself and her teammates going. With that approach, Duncan said FSHS never has issues with motivation nor getting the most from its players.
“That’s what they respond well to and her personality brings that out,” Duncan said. “Groups in the past, you had to be really hard on, and we’d chew on them all the time. This group responds much better to positive criticism and humor a little bit.”
The Firebirds aren’t constantly cracking jokes and trying to make each other laugh — that occurs most often at practice — but when they decide to go goofball, senior Abbey Casady said it’s usually by quoting one of their go-to favorite movies, such as “Pitch Perfect,” “Mean Girls” or “She’s the Man.” It’s always an easy way to lighten the mood.
“Kennedy just laughs at anything,” Casady said. “We have a pretty dynamic team as far as how we get along with each other.”
Because Kirkpatrick is Free State’s most skilled and experienced player, Duncan expects her to lead, too. Junior guard Millie Shade said when Kirkpatrick gets a hot hand, the Firebirds (13-5) are at their best.
“She’s the one that provides our energy. Once she’s going, everybody’s going,” Shade said, noting Kirkpatrick also creates offense for her teammates in those situations. “She’s just like our main provider.”
In what Kirkpatrick calls a “memorable” senior year at FSHS, complete with the high of signing a college basketball scholarship with Bowling Green University and the low of partially tearing the MCL in her left knee, she hopes to add more positives to her list of accomplishments.
Only two games remain in the regular season — tonight’s home date against Shawnee Mission East and Friday’s City Showdown against Lawrence, at FSHS. Wins in both of those games would allow the Firebirds to match last year’s program record of 15 regular-season wins. Two more victories at sub-state would mean a trip to the Class 6A state tournament, which the Firebirds last visited in 2010, Kirkpatrick’s freshman year.
“This is the last time I’m going to be on the court with all these girls,” Kirkpatrick said, “so I want to enjoy it.”