Seniors on the Free State boys basketball team enjoying turnaround

There’s just something about a son or daughter’s high school years that makes parents go wild. They take pictures before prom, chronicle accomplishments in scrapbooks and brag non-stop to their friends.

That’s what made the 2008-09 Free State High boys basketball season so tough for so many parents and, in turn, what makes this year so special for those same people.

At first glance, this year’s FSHS squad looks like any other prep hoops team enjoying a pretty good season.

During warm-ups the Firebirds look loose, laughing, smiling, pumped about what lies ahead. In games, the team transforms and plays with tenacity, passion and pride.

It wasn’t always this way for three of Free State’s four seniors. Far from it. Two years ago, as sophomores, Alec Heline, Evan Manning and Eric Watson battled uphill night after night, charged with the task of helping the Firebirds’ varsity squad win games. It didn’t happen. Victorious in the first game of the season, FSHS finished 1-20 and was forced to endure one of the toughest prep seasons in recent memory.

While Heline, Manning and Watson suffered serious blows to their self-esteem with each loss, they weren’t the only ones who buckled in for that bumpy ride. They weren’t the only ones hurting.

“It was real rough,” said Scott Watson, father of Eric, who leads the 11-8 Firebirds in scoring. “The growing pains of watching them lose was hard. It was just a matter of him surviving the losses and not letting them get in his head.”

Throughout the years, coaches in the toughest of times continually have uttered these same words when talking about how their athletes handle losses: “The good thing about young kids is they’re resilient.” They’re right. Though the losing was tough for those three young men, the pain of that disappointing season hit the parents as hard if not harder.

“I gotta tell you, it is nicer being a kid than it is being a parent,” said Alec’s father, Jeff Heline, recalling that 2008-09 season. “He’d be down the night of a game, but then he’d bounce back the next day. In the mind of a 15-16-year-old, they’re really not thinking much past 3 o’clock most of the time. So this year has been great. He’s the happiest I’ve ever seen him.”

Added Heline’s mother, Sandi: “I think he talks more about it now than he did then. Basketball’s something he always really enjoyed, so it was hard to watch. But this year, it’s been a 180-degree turnaround and it’s a lot of fun. It doesn’t even stress me out.”

That’s what makes this year’s run so exciting. They’re seniors. One way or another they’re going out on a good note. This was the way it was supposed to be. All three of them deserve that. In some small way, this makes up for the struggle of two seasons ago.

Like the Helines, the Watson duo also talks about basketball more now than it did during Eric’s sophomore year. A few days after Christmas, Eric and Scott went to lunch and, between bites, the comparison between this season and that painful sophomore year came up.

“For some reason, I just asked him, ‘Are you having more fun this year than you did your sophomore year?'” Scott said. “And he goes, ‘Oh, dad, it’s like night and day.'”