Free State girls roll past Blue Valley West in season opener

photo by: Carter Gaskins

Free State Shannon Clarke (3) shake hands with teammate Caely Kesten (13) after she made a 3-pointer in the second quarter.

Free State’s girls basketball team had every intention of getting in the win column to start the year.

Last season, the Firebirds did not record their first victory until Jan. 19, which came after seven consecutive losses. This time around, though, Free State took care of business in the season opener with a 51-30 win over Blue Valley West Thursday night at FSHS.

“It was definitely exciting for us, and brought our energy up,” junior Caely Kesten said. “With the history we have had of the other team coming back in the third quarter, and us being able to sustain our lead, it was pretty good for us to get that momentum. That first win gets us on the way.”

But Thursday’s meeting started off similar to last year’s season opener between these two teams. The Firebirds dealt with foul trouble in the opening period, and never recovered when the Jaguars poured in 21 points in the second quarter last winter.

Free State again labored through foul trouble in the first quarter. Sophomore Shannon Clarke and junior Haley Hippe, along with Kesten, each spent time on the bench with two fouls. As a result, FSHS faced an 8-6 deficit after the first eight minutes of the game.

“I told the kids that we were in the same situation last year,” Free State coach Ted Juneau said. “This year, we hung tough and we didn’t back down. We were able to play offense and defense. That really worked out.”

photo by: Carter Gaskins

Free State junior Caely Kesten (13) shoots a three late in the first quarter Thursday night at FSHS.

Kesten’s presence proved to be the difference maker, which was especially evident in the second quarter.

Kesten scored 9 of the team’s 17 points in the second period, lifting FSHS to a 23-11 advantage at the intermission. Her first bucket came on a designed set, as senior Sam Lawrence came off a screen and dumped the ball inside to Kesten for a layup.

Just two minutes later, Kesten was in the right place at the right time when a loose ball came to her in the lane, where she nailed the turnaround. One possession later, Kesten drilled a triple from the left wing on an assist by senior Mayela Edwards.

Kesten then added two points on the free-throw line after she sprinted past two Blue Valley West defenders before getting fouled on the layup attempt. It was an important stretch for the junior point guard, who missed the first two games of last season.

“Last year, I was heartbroken because I couldn’t play with them,” Kesten said. “This game meant something to be on the floor.”

Kesten’s play powered a stretch of 15 unanswered points by the Firebirds between the 6:08 mark and the 1:49 mark in the second quarter.

“For us, she’s obviously our catalyst,” Juneau said. “She makes our offense go and, defensively, she tells people where they need to go.”

However, Free State demonstrated its balance in the second half to hold off the opposition.

Hippe netted four baskets in the third quarter to help the Firebirds stretch their lead to 20 points in the second half. Kesten paced the team with 15 points on 14 shot attempts, though Hippe finished with 14 points.

Clarke was the third Firebird to finish in double figures, as she added 11 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

“I wouldn’t be shocked if that’s what we do all season long,” Juneau said of his team’s balance. “I can’t say enough about all of them.”

Free State faces Liberty in the Olathe East tournament at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Olathe East.

BLUE VALLEY WEST (30)

Shaun Holmes 3-10 0-2 8, Hanna Strombom 0-5 0-0 0, Lauren DeWitt 0-2 2-2 2, Kate Bandre 1-2 1-2 3, Alexa Pittman 0-4 6-10 6, CC Forcenelli 1-5 0-0 3, Neva Longhofer 0-0 0-1 0, Liv Ensley 3-7 0-0 8, Taylor Berman 0-1 0-0 0, Calle Pittman 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 8-39, 9-17 30.

FREE STATE (51)

Shannon Clarke 5-13 1-4 11, Sam Lawrence 1-7 6-6 9, Caely Kesten 5-14 4-4 15, Haley Hippe 6-11 2-3 14, Joy Nunoo 0-3 0-1 0, Mayela Edwards 1-5 0-0 2, Liliana Keathle0-2 0-0 0, Evy Harrell 0-2 0-0 0, Hope Wheeler Halstead 0-0 0-1 0. Totals 18-57 13-19 51.

BV West 8 3 9 10 — 30

Free State 6 17 17 11 — 51

Three-point goals: Free State 2-16 (Lawrence, Kesten); BV West 5-22 (Holmes 2, Ensley 2, Forcellini). Turnovers: Free State 11, BV West 16.

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