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Don't count out the Firebirds
Friday night might have seemed like a tough time to be a Firebird.
Yes, Free State's basketball teams were swept by talented Olathe Northwest squads at ONW.
Yeah, both FSHS teams are in a bit of a slump — the girls have dropped three straight after winning their first five, and the boys are in a seven-game losing-streak funk.
But that doesn't mean it's time to give up on either of these teams.
Free State girls
Let's start with the Free State girls. They have gone 0-3 since Sunflower League play began post-winter break. However, they can still get back to being the team that looked so strong in December.
The step up in level of competition clearly has led to a bit of an adjustment period for the Firebirds. Two of their losses — Olathe East and Olathe Northwest — have come against top-10 teams in Class 6A. ONW is ranked No. 1.
FSHS is still a reactively young team, with Jackie Garcia and Lynn Robinson the only seniors in the rotation. Remember, this is a team that returns all of its regular contributors from a year ago. But that team went 11-11.
These girls are still learning about being a winning team, still finding out what it takes to play on a top-10 level.
Fortunately for FSHS, they have a great mix of energy, athleticism and ability in their seven-guard lineup of Garcia, Robinson, Kennedy Kirkpatrick, Abbey and Chelsea Casady, Scout Wiebe and A'Liyah Rogers.
While facing teams with size, such as ONW, will continue to be a challenge, such games aren't un-winnable.
The real difference Friday at Olathe Northwest was a cold shooting night for Free State's lead guards, Kirkpatrick and Robinson. It was just one of those games where good looks don't drop. They missed 15 shots between the two of them.
Those two are too level-headed, positive and talented to let one game like that impact them in the long run, and nights such as that one simply aren't going to come around very often with their ability to knock down shots. And when Kirkpatrick and Robinson are hitting, things will become easier for the Casady twins, Garcia, Wiebe and Rogers.
Coach Bryan Duncan likes this group, and rightfully so. There's no way he's fretting over this little slump, and neither should Firebirds fans.
Look for the FSHS girls to get back on track Tuesday, when they play host to Emporia.
Free State boys
The skid for Chuck Law's boys began back on Dec. 10, 2011, with a home loss to Lansing, and continued Friday at No. 2 ONW.
One of the biggest problems for Free State in this stretch has been consistency — out of players, in general, and from the ability to establish a rotation.
When senior forward Gabe Patterson injured his hip in pre-game warmups on Dec. 16, it left the Firebirds without their only go-to post starter for a stretch of four games — Patterson returned to the starting lineup against ONW.
Now senior guard Shawn Knighton is out with a high ankle sprain, and Law doesn't know for certain when the speedy guard will be able to return.
In the meantime, Law and his staff have experimented with different personnel on the floor. Sophomores Blake Winslow and Cole Moreano, as well as Reshawn Caro, have taken on more prominent roles. Senior guard Dimitar Gocevski is now in the mix, too.
Once the Firebirds are completely healthy and have found that right mix of role players to compliment seniors Cameron Dabney, Brett Frantz, Tyler Self and Patterson, they will be in a much better position to win basketball games.
Even if FSHS had enjoyed an injury-free season with an established rotation, it probably wouldn't have been enough to beat the Ravens, who have two future Division I players — 6-foot-10 Kentucky commit Willie Cauley and 6-foot-5 Nebraska signee Shavon Shields — on their roster.
Law was up front about the challenge Free State faced Friday, and said regardless of the outcome, he needed to see the team make strides in some aspects.
By the end of the night, the coach saw some things he liked. Namely, the Firebirds played unselfishly and showed some team cohesion, even though it was a 24-point loss.
"I saw some guys actually caring about each other tonight," Law said after the game.
Free State will face another highly-ranked team in its next contest. The Firebirds' first-round game at the McPherson Invitational (4:45 p.m., Thursday) is against Buhler, ranked No. 3 in Class 4A.
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