Free State, Lawrence High girls aim to end prolonged losing streaks with win in City Showdown

photo by: Carter Gaskins/Journal-World File Photos

Lawrence High's Ozi Ajekwu, left, and Free State's Caely Kesten, right, will be part of the 2020 City Showdown Friday, Feb. 21, 2020, at Allen Fieldhouse.

The lone crosstown clash of the regular season between the Lawrence High and Free State girls basketball teams Friday will carry extra significance for a rivalry game.

Both teams desperately need a victory with postseason play looming. Free State (6-11, 1-8 Sunflower League) has yet to win a game in February, having dropped six in a row since its win over Derby in the semifinals of the Lady Firebirds Winter Classic on Jan. 31. The last win for Lawrence High (5-12, 1-8) came against Junction City in the seventh-place match of that same midseason tournament on Feb. 1. Since then, the Lions have lost all five of their games against Sunflower League foes.

The City Showdown, which tips off at 6:30 p.m., is also slated to take place in Allen Fieldhouse for the first time in two years.

“It would be naive of me to think it is just another basketball game,” Free State coach Nick Wood said. “I know how important this game is to those kids. They put a lot of work into the season and they deserve to have a successful moment out there. At the same time, Lawrence High is going to be extremely pumped up and ready to play as well.”

Free State defeated LHS on the Lions’ home court in “The Jungle” last year to end a five-game skid in this rivalry. Junior Evy Harrell, junior Shannon Clarke, senior Caely Kesten and senior Joy Nunoo all played a part in last year’s victory and are hoping to back up that showing this time around.

Senior Ella Stewart is the lone Lion to score in last year’s meeting who is also slated to play this week. But Ozi Ajekwu, Amaya Marshall, Hailey Ramirez, Layla Harjo and Paiden Bell are all expected to make an impact for LHS on Friday.

“We just need to focus on winning each game at a time, no matter who it is,” Stewart said. “We’re just coming into it with the mindset of ‘They’re just another good team that we have to step up and beat.'”

With both teams having just two regular-season contests remaining after Friday, the City Showdown could be important for postseason seeding. FSHS is currently the No. 11 seed in the 6A West, while LHS is two spots lower than that.

More than that, it could serve as a big moral boost for either team entering the final week of the regular season. The Firebirds, who haven’t won since upsetting Derby, perhaps understand that better than anyone.

“It would build our confidence a lot more,” Nunoo said. “What I have seen is we have been shut down so many times, it is kind of hard for us to get back in and get the feel of winning again.”

Sideline showdown

Friday’s rivalry matchup will be Wood’s first time facing Lawrence High in his coaching career.

Wood, who graduated from LHS in 1996, served as the head girls basketball coach for the Lions between 2009-14.

“It will definitely be a little surreal being on the other sideline,” Wood said. “Coaching and competing against Lawrence High for the first time will be strange. It will be a lot of fun. They have a great group over there, and they have a really good coaching staff. It will be a fun night.”

Ever since Wood left, Jeff Dickson has been in charge of the Lions and has directed a strong run by the LHS girls basketball team. The Lions have played in five consecutive sub-state championship games, which includes a trip to the Class 6A state tournament during the 2016-17 season.

This won’t be the first time that Dickson and Wood have squared off against each other, however. The two had Sunflower League battles when Dickson was at Shawnee Mission Northwest and Wood was guiding the Lions.

“It’s weird seeing him wearing green; we like him better in red and black,” Dickson said. “But I think it’s going to be more weird for him now because he’s coached both the city teams.”

While it remains to be seen whose team will be victorious on the floor, Dickson has already conceded defeat in one area.

“I know he’ll be way better dressed than I will be, and he’ll look like a million bucks,” Dickson said. “He’s definitely got that edge over me.”


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