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LJWorld.com weblogs The Dividing Line

Free State boys basketball team better than 1-8 record indicates.

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My first taste of the new-look Free State High boys basketball team this season came at the Bonner Springs tournament in early December. There, where the Firebirds finished fourth, I watched as FSHS coach Chuck Law played 11 guys a relatively-equal amount of minutes during a 13-point drubbing by Topeka-Seaman. In that game, the Firebirds showed the full spectrum of what's possible with this team. They were overwhelmed early and fell into a huge hole, scrapped and clawed their way back into it — cutting the lead to as few as three points early in the second half — and then stumbled over their youth and inexperience down the stretch. At the time, Law admitted that he was still searching for a way to fit the right pieces into the right places and that bringing this team together would take time. I've seen the Firebirds play four games since then and, even though they have not won a game since the first round of that tournament, it has become quite clear that the Firebirds are getting there. First, there was the near-win against a more talented, more experienced Lawrence High team before winter break. Then, they followed that up with a spirited effort at Blue Valley West and another one on the road against Olathe North. Free State lost all three games on the scoreboard but gained something far more useful than a couple of January victories ever could be — experience and confidence. There's still work to be done, but this much we know: 1. Seniors Chase Hoag and Connor Monarez have learned what leading by example means. Both players have shelved hopes and expectations for their own stat lines for the good of the team. They give relentless effort, are willing to sacrifice their bodies for a possession and have been effective guarding taller, stronger players throughout the season. 2. Junior guard Nick Hassig might be the team's most valuable player right now. Hassig is the kind of player every coach would love to have. He works hard, says little and relies on fundamentals and intelligence to guide his game. Hassig has become a terrific defender — if for no other reason than effort alone — and also has become one of the team's more reliable outside shooters. 3. Senior Jake Miller can be this team's leading scorer. But in order for Miller to do it, he has to focus on two things: (1) playing within the offense and taking shots when they're there, and (2) keeping his emotions in check. Miller is a fiery player with a killer shot and a real knack for scoring. And at this point in the season this team needs everything he can give, which includes, points, poise and solid leadership.4. Sophomores Alec Heline and Eric Watson — both starters — belong on the floor. As sophomores who starred for their junior high teams at this time last season, the transition to varsity basketball has not been easy for Heline and Watson. But both players play with the kind of poise, confidence and intelligence not often seen by players so young. They disappear at times and don't always fill up the stat sheet, but they are capable of it and both do the little things that don't always get noticed but do win ballgames. It's no coincidence that the six players mentioned above have emerged as the top six in the Firebirds' rotation. And because Law and company have been able to pinpoint what that rotation is and should be, the Firebirds have taken big steps toward winning ballgames. The only thing left to do now is to avoid fourth-quarter mental lapses and remember that nobody cares who wins or loses in January.

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