Every member of Free State High’s boys basketball team openly acknowledges the Firebirds aren’t the most talented, deepest or offensively dominating team around. And that’s OK with them, because they’re one of eight programs still in the hunt for the Class 6A state championship.
After entering the postseason with a losing record, FSHS improved to 11-11 and won a sub-state title Friday night at Olathe East. Coach Chuck Law, leading Free State to its second state tournament in his seven-year tenure and first since 2007, said the sub-state bracket actually favored his unheralded, No. 7-seed Firebirds.
“Anybody who knows anything about the game, the NCAA Tournament, whatever, it’s all about match-ups,” said Law, who liked Free State’s ability to compete with first-round opponent Gardner-Edgerton, as well as O-East. “There were years where we had much better records and drew bad match-ups and didn’t get out of the first round.”
Winning at GEHS was one thing. Going into a hostile environment at O-East and knocking off the No. 10 team in 6A, complete with future NCAA Division I players Kyle Smith (Army signee) and Ezra Talbert (Creighton commit), was another. The Hawks had the look a state-tournament team — size and shooters. But junior FSHS forward Cole Moreano and his teammates remained unfazed.
“We played together,” Moreano said. “We kind of figured out if we play as a team in a place like that, we can still win.”
It took all eight Firebirds who got on the floor making key plays for FSHS to topple the Hawks, 45-44. Moreano and Cody Scott kept Free State in reach with baskets but also worked perfectly with Keith Loneker, Reshawn Caro, Blake Winslow, Khadre Lane, Logan Bannister and Weston Hack to beat O-East’s zone with ball fakes, movement and trap-busting passes.
“Everybody was great,” Law said, “and people are gonna forget Logan Bannister and what he did.”
A starting senior forward whom Law called a steadying influence, Bannister made two of Free State’s first three baskets, getting the visitors off to a hot start and an early 11-5 advantage.
Even though the Hawks built a lead in the second quarter and didn’t relinquish it until the fourth, Free State remained determined and stuck around with defense and timely breakthroughs on offense. It was the kind of performance they weren’t capable of making as recently as two months ago. Lane said the team’s 2-7 start and seven-game losing streak could’ve doomed the rest of the season.
“We knew how good we were and just weren’t playing to our potential,” Lane said. “Credit Law for that, keeping our heads into it. He knew how good we were; we just had to get it going. I think everybody started to doubt us, and we just had to keep ourselves into it.”
Now on a three-game win streak and having won nine of their last 13, the Firebirds are in a similar position to the last FSHS team to reach state. That team in 2007 was 11-11, too, and it won in the first round before finishing third.
“Hopefully,” Scott said, “we can do the same thing.”
Free State also qualified for state in 2000, 2001 and 2005. This year’s draw could be the most difficult. KSHSAA won’t officially release brackets until 10 this morning, but the Firebirds have the lowest winning percentage (.500) of the eight teams in the tournament and will face 6A’s only unbeaten, Blue Valley Northwest (22-0), in the first round Wednesday at Wichita.
Said Law: “We’re gonna come up with a game plan as best as we can to contain them and see if we can go and surprise some people.”