Before the start of the trophy presentation Saturday night, Free State boys basketball coach Sam Stroh approached several of his players to console them and offer words of encouragement.
There was no way to take away the pain from a 51-40 loss in the state championship game to Blue Valley Northwest. A team that featured seven seniors on its state roster fell a few plays short of reaching all of its goals it set before the season.
Many of the seniors grew up playing alongside each other at West Middle School and various AAU programs. They said it would take some time before they could celebrate their achievements but they left the visitor’s locker room at Wichita State’s Koch Arena as one of Free State’s most accomplished classes in program history.
In the last two years, the Firebirds won back-to-back Sunflower League titles, reached the state tournament’s Final Four twice and earned the school’s first trip to the state championship game.
“One of the best groups I’ve ever been around,” Stroh said, “not only on the court but off.”
Free State boys basketball vs. Blue Valley Northwest (6A state championship)
Senior guard Garrett Luinstra left his mark as one of the top scorers in school history, producing a single-game record of 36 points in the season opener. His teammates mentioned that he always wanted the pressure on his shoulders to help them play better.
In the state championship game, Luinstra, who will walk on at Kansas next year, scored a team-high 16 points while shooting 5-for-13 from the floor. After the first quarter, Luinstra was told by Stroh to “lead the team in any way you can.” He scored half of his team’s points by halftime.
“I said before the season that I wouldn’t trade him for any player in the state and I still wouldn’t,” Stroh said. “We’re going to miss him. KU’s lucky, they’ve got a guy. If he works hard, maybe he can get some time. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around. We’re going to miss him big time.”
Luinstra added of his future at KU: “I’m not going to lay back and be the walk on. I’m going to try to work for minutes and do what I can.”
Senior forward Jalan Robinson stunned his teammates and coaches when he suited up for the state title game. He suffered an ankle injury in the final minutes of Friday’s semifinal and went to the hospital afterward.
At halftime of the 6A girls state championship game, when the Firebirds took the floor for a brief warmup, Robinson stood on the baseline in crutches with ice wrapped around his ankle. An hour later, he was testing the ankle in pregame warmups, taking several breaks to re-tie his shoe and stretch out his foot.
Robinson told the coaching staff prior the game that he wouldn't be able to play. After warmups and sitting on the bench for the first quarter, Robinson tapped Stroh's leg and told him he was ready to play.
“I don’t think anyone expected him to play or suit up,” Luinstra said. “But he’s a tough guy. I’m glad we have him on our team. It shows what kind of character he has.”
On one of his first defensive possessions, the 6-foot-5 Robinson stood his ground so well in the post that a Blue Valley Northwest player fell over when he tried to back him down. Robinson had four points, two rebounds and a blocked shot but was limited in the fourth quarter when the Huskies isolated him on the perimeter.
“I was really surprised how long he was lasting out there,” said senior Reece White-Downing, Robinson’s roommate in the team hotel. “He’s a tough kid. Him just going out there, much respect to him.”
White-Downing scored six points and drew two charges in the title game while Bansi King had eight points and Zach McDermott added three assists. Senior captain Simon McCaffrey was tasked with playing defense against taller guards and Jared Hicks entered in the final minute.
Players were disappointed by the loss, especially after their strong comeback in the fourth quarter, but Stroh said he couldn't be prouder of the way they battled. The student section chanted "Thank you seniors" in the final minute.
“I just love my team and I love what everyone did for each other," Luinstra said. "Everybody just wanted to win this one and played for each other."