In all honesty, Free State High boys basketball coach Chuck Law didn’t expect to have so many players on the first day of winter sports tryouts Monday.
Like many Firebirds and their fans, Law figured the FSHS football team would still be practicing this week, in preparation for a state semifinal game. However, Free State’s football season ended just in time for the start of basketball, so the Firebirds who play both sports, such as seniors Blake Winslow and Keith Loneker (Khadre Lane was out sick), were working on their jumpers and drives instead of blocking and tackling.
“There’s no doubt we’ve been engrossed in the football season, watching them make that run,” Law said. “There’s nobody who was at that game on Friday who doesn’t feel a little bit of disappointment today.”
In fact, Law kind of planned on not having the football players around for this part of the preseason, which was the case in 2012.
“I don’t necessarily consider myself fortunate to have them here,” Law said, “because I know how much making a deep run in the playoffs meant to them.”
At Lawrence High, boys basketball coach Mike Lewis could tell all the players trying out were eager to work.
“It’s nice just to get the guys all in one spot together,” Lewis said. “On Day One we start to make this feel like a team, and that’s what’s most exciting to me.”
The jitters and adrenaline were present in the gymnasium, even if there weren’t any spectators. And for Lewis, the best part of this time of year is knowing every player has his full attention, which isn’t always the case in the offseason, when distractions often get in the way of growth on the court.
“We don’t have excuses one way or another,” Lewis said. “Everybody knows at 3:30 that we’re ready to start rolling.”
The first day of basketball had FSHS girls coach Bryan Duncan ready to take on the unknowns of this year’s roster and what it potentially could become.
“I think every season just brings a new group and new excitement and new expectations and challenges,” Duncan said. “That’s the beauty of basketball. You get to start fresh every year.”
The Firebirds won’t be guard-heavy, as they have been lately, but Duncan hopes his team will share some of the characteristics of his past few squads.
“Offensively, the strengths might be slightly different,” the coach said, “but we still have people who can score baskets and people who can really run.”
At LHS, coach Nick Wood’s girls expect to run a lot, too, as he finds ways to mesh the program’s experienced players with the inexperienced.
“We’re trying to figure out who’s going to help us be successful, and once you identify those players, you’ve got to figure out how we’re going to make that transition work,” Wood said. “As a head coach, that’s part of the fun.”
Through Wednesday, the Lions will start to stand out in tryouts, and Wood said things will become even more clear once practice starts Thursday.
When Free State boys swimming coach Annette McDonald saw close to 40 swimmers jump in the pool Monday at Lawrence Indoor Aquatic Center, she knew the preseason was off to a good start.
“What I’m really excited about is all the newcomers. It’s just great,” she said. “We’re small in (numbers) of seniors, but there’s good leadership there.”
Most of the FSHS additions are freshmen and sophomores.
“I’m getting to know them, they’re getting to know me,” McDonald said. “It’s a pretty new bunch.”
Meanwhile, her husband, Kent, Lawrence’s boys swimming coach, was pleased to have a little more than 30 student-athletes show interest in the program and come out for the first day of practice.
But he has been doing this long enough (eight seasons) to anticipate some drop-off in numbers.
“A lot of new swimmers, they don’t realize how hard it is,” the Lions coach said.
LHS finished last winter with 23 swimmers, and McDonald was pleased to see six potential divers on the first day.
Free State’s wrestling coach, Mike Gillman, is an assistant on the football staff, too, so Monday could have been a bit of a downer. But the wrestlers helped Gillman make the transition a little less painful.
“I think the kids are excited,” the coach said. “I’ve got some seniors who are really excited about being in the room and just trying to get the new kids ready.”
Gillman said seniors Colton Steele and Maurice Jacobs should get the newcomers on track.
Lawrence opened preseason practice without its head coach, Pat Naughton. He suffered an infection in his right foot and might not be able to return to the team until the first week of December.
With Naughton gone, assistants Gus Andrews and Josh Hanson are filling in. Andrews called it an unexpected challenge for the Lions.
“Realistically, Naughton is the heart and soul of this team, and he always has been,” Andrews said. “These kids know it.”
Andrews said he and Hanson want to do what they can to keep LHS improving until Naughton comes back.
“He left us a pretty detailed plan,” the assistant added, “so we’ll stick with that as best as we can.”