Homecourt edge: Firebirds flourish in own gym

Free State High volleyball players from left Payton Gannaway, (17), Sydney Moreano, (20) and Emma Barberena (9) defend at the net during a Firebirds match against Shawnee Mission South High School, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014 at FSHS.

Free State High’s volleyball players waited a long time for their first home matches of the season. They made the most of it Thursday night at FSHS.

Finally in the comfort of their home gym, the Firebirds dominated play as they topped Shawnee Mission South, 25-16, 25-19, and Olathe North, 25-20, 25-12.

Add in a lively student section, which kept energy high, and quick starts during both matches, and the Firebirds proved there is no place like home.

“They improved on things that we’ve done in practice this week,” FSHS coach Nancy Hopkins said. “You could see a definite carry-over to the game, which is always nice. They kept their focus better than they have been in the past. And the student section helped us a bunch.”

The Firebirds (7-9) focused on defense and net play in practice, and it showed. Senior Sydney Moreano and sophomore Naomi Hickman each had 2.5 blocks against O-North, while sophomore Emma Barberena and senior Allison Knapp added one each.

In the win over O-North, the Firebirds showed what they look like when they’re playing to their potential, jumping to a 13-3 lead to open the second set. During one sequence, Knapp received a serve and passed the ball toward the middle of the net to junior setter Lauren Johnson, who set the ball behind her back to her left, and Knapp drilled the ball for an easy kill.

Johnson connected with Moreano for kills on the last two points of the match.

“I was really happy that we, like, worked together, and everything that we’ve been doing bad on, we improved on,” said Johnson, who led the Firebirds with 24 assists and added two aces. “We trusted each other and communicated better.”

In the first match against SM South, the Firebirds led 10-3 in the first set, cruising to a quick victory. Sophomore Payton Gannaway showed her versatility with eight assists and three kills in that match.

For a season that has been scattered with inconsistent play, Free State players and coaches were happy to have it all come together.

“That potential has always been there. We just haven’t always seen it,” Hopkins said. “But, yeah, that was nice.”

The Firebirds will open play in the Topeka Seaman Invitational at 8:30 a.m. Saturday.