Chris Linner excited for first year coaching FSHS girls basketball, plus other key storylines for upcoming basketball season

photo by: Nick Krug

Free State's Evy Harrell pulls up in the paint against Lawrence High's Ozi Ajekwu (23) and Ella Stewart (10) during the second half on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020 at Allen Fieldhouse.

First-year head coach Chris Linner really hasn’t had much of an adjustment period with his team before the Free State girls basketball squad is scheduled to begin the 2020-21 campaign. Free State will start things off with a road matchup against Blue Valley Northwest at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.

In fact, Linner will only have had a few weeks of in-person practice with the Firebirds before they face his former team this weekend. Linner, who was an assistant at Blue Valley Northwest for the last two seasons, became the new head coach of FSHS girls basketball in late July.

“I didn’t get a chance to meet them until about October,” Linner said. “It was a little bit of a process to finally have the opportunity to see them face-to-face. You had to get a little creative in terms of getting to know them or finding ways to communicate with them since they weren’t in the building.”

Summer workouts and conditioning are such a big part of any coaching coaching staff becoming familiar with its team, especially for a new coach. Linner is at least used to the Sunflower League, as he played for Shawnee Mission West during his high school career.

Linner played one season of collegiate basketball at Graceland in 2013-14 before eventually finishing up his degree at the University of Kansas. Linner then served as the JV/Varsity assistant for Blue Valley Northwest girls basketball over the last two years before landing the job at Free State.

photo by: Contributed photo

Contributed photo of Chris Linner, who is the new head coach of Free State girls basketball. Linner spent two seasons as an assistant for Blue Valley Northwest girls basketball before taking over the Free State program.

Linner replaces Nick Wood, who spent one season at the helm before leaving to become the Lawrence High Athletic Director. FSHS went 8-13 a season ago under Wood’s guidance.

“Being a head coach is something I’ve always wanted to do since being a kid,” Linner said. “It was a dream come true and I knew it was kind of the right place, right time situation with everything going on. I couldn’t be more excited, this is something I’ve wanted to do my entire life.”

Because of the lack of adjustment period, along with the challenges of having a season during the COVID-19 pandemic, Linner doesn’t have any expectations for the upcoming season in terms of record.

Linner expects big things from senior Shannon Clarke, who averaged 15.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game last year. Seniors Evy Harrell and Daeci Jaillite-Walker will also have key roles on this year’s squad, which figures to play more up-tempo and run a lot of motion in half-court situations.

Mostly, Linner hopes his seven-player senior class will make the most of the opportunity to play this season.

“It’s just a relief that we get something,” Linner said. “I can’t tell you how excited everybody is to have a game and to have some sort of normalcy in this kind of hectic environment that we have been dealing with the last couple of months.”

Although there is still so much unknown about how this year will unfold, let’s take a look at some of the interesting storylines entering the 2020-21 basketball season:

How will local basketball teams navigate through a pandemic-impacted season?

It has been nearly nine months since the high school winter sports season was shut down early due to the threat of COVID-19. Bishop Seabury’s boys basketball squad was the only team still alive when the state tournament was canceled early in March, but it is no secret that this will impact all the local teams this winter.

The fall sports season managed to be completed, but there were certainly bumps along the way for a number of teams. The local basketball programs at Lawrence High, Free State, Bishop Seabury, Veritas, Baldwin, Eudora, Perry-Lecompton and Tonganoxie will all have to figure out their own way to safely play basketball during a pandemic.

Eudora, for example, didn’t get to start practice until this week and had its first few games postponed or canceled before the season even started. It has made things even harder for 14-year head Kyle Deterding, who has to find a way to replace a lot of key players from last year’s EHS boys basketball team that went 10-12. Seniors Ty Abts and Justin Fawcett are among the few key returners for the Cardinals.

So it will be interesting to see how each team navigates through a season unlike any other because there really is no definitive game plan for how to deal with all of this.

Which local teams can make it back to the state tournament?

While the 2019-20 campaign ended early, it was still a strong showing by the area basketball teams. A total of five squads made it to the state tournament, led by a pair of impressive streaks in Class 6A boys basketball.

Lawrence High’s boys basketball team has made six consecutive trips to the Class 6A state tourney, which matches a program record set between 1916 and 1922. Senior guard Zeke Mayo is the only returning starter for the Lions this season.

Free State’s boys basketball team has gone to Wichita four years in a row under head coach Sam Stroh, who is entering his sixth season as the head coach of the program. Stingy defense and composure have become key traits for the Firebirds over this recent stretch of success.

In Class 4A girls, both Eudora and Baldwin made it back to the state tournament before losing in the opening round. EHS, which has qualified for state in back-to-back years, went 20-3 a season ago and won 16 consecutive contests at one point. Coming off a 17-6 campaign, BHS will be looking to notch a fourth consecutive state berth.

Bishop Seabury’s boys basketball team will have to replace multiple key players and its head coach after going 22-2 and reaching the Class 2A quarterfinals last winter. Longtime assistant coach Jamelle Blunt took over the program in the summer after Jonathan Raney left to become an assistant at Washburn University.

In addition, both Veritas basketball teams are looking to post better finishes at the KCAA state tournament. Veritas boys return Will Rau, Brennan Clements, Aden-Jay Baker and Will Bartkoski from last year’s squad that went 9-15. VHS girls didn’t win a game last season, but will bring back Lydia Alvarado, Maddy Malm and Hannah Borger.

Both teams will begin the season on Dec. 11 at Cornerstone.

Key players to watch throughout 2020-21 season:

The local basketball scene figures to have plenty of talent once again, headlined by Mayo of LHS boys basketball. As a junior, Mayo was named Journal-World’s boys basketball player of the year after averaging 16 points per game to go along with 6.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per contest.

Junior Mozae Downing is in line to have a breakout season for Free State boys basketball after two years of being the team’s starting point guard. Clarke of FSHS girls basketball will look to end an impressive career on a high note before continuing her career at the Naval Academy.

Senior Stavian Jones is the only returning player for the Bishop Seabury’s boys basketball program. His numbers should only improve after a remarkable junior campaign where he was named to the Class 2A All-State team and was a 2A player of the year nominee.

Last season, Parker Stone (Perry-Lecompton) and Dallas Bond (Tonganoxie) both made the Journal-World’s all-area first team for their respective squads as juniors as well.

Eudora’s Harper Schreiner, who was the Journal-World’s girls basketball player of the year, averaged 15.6 points and 4.2 assists per game during her sophomore season.

PLHS girls bring back juniors Campbell Keller and Katy Hurd after winning double-digit games last season for just the second time in the last 20 years. Tonganoxie girls basketball is still searching for its first league victory since joining the Frontier League two years ago, but has a solid group of returners — Raegan Seba, Emma Sunderland, Morgan Brusven and Ashtin Barnes — to help accomplish that feat.


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