‘Small victories’ motivate Free State girls basketball in head coach Nick Wood’s first year

photo by: Shane Jackson

Free State senior Caely Kesten (13) and junior Shannon Clarke (3) hug after Kesten broke the single-game assist record for the Firebirds Friday night at FSHS on Feb. 28, 2020.

With his first season as head coach of Free State girls basketball now in the books, Nick Wood made sure to reflect on how both he and the Firebirds performed this past season.

“You’re looking at every aspect of our basketball program and looking at how we can improve upon it,” Wood told the Journal-World in a telephone interview. “I think self-reflection is a huge piece of how you do that.”

The Firebirds finished the year 8-13 in Wood’s first season at the helm. And while it may have ended on a sour note with a 66-57 loss to Washburn Rural in the first round of sub-state, Wood mainly has positive takeaways from the year.

Building the confidence of junior forward Anna McIntire. Senior guard Caely Kesten setting a new school record for career assists in the regular-season finale. Having junior forward Shannon Clarke develop into a leader on and off the court.

These are what Wood calls “small victories” and were pivotal to any success the Firebirds shared in this season, according to Wood.

Some of those also came in the form of personal accolades, such as Clarke and Kesten being named to the All-Sunflower League second team and junior guard Evy Harrell being named an honorable mention.

Wood pointed out how it’s extremely difficult to land on any of these postseason teams and hopes it serves as a nice send-off for Kesten, a Northwest Missouri State signee, and motivation for next year for Clarke and Harrell.

“I think it’s extremely gratifying,” Wood said. “I see the work that those girls put into their basketball game every day. We play in a really, really good league with really good players.”

But what might be most important to Wood looking back is how his team bought into his program from the start. Wood used his past experience coaching at Lawrence High, overseas in Muscat, Oman, and at Washburn University to his new position at Free State.

Wood learned to delegate to his staff with specific tasks like scouting and running drills and practice, while also understanding with basketball it’s a long season and to anticipate the highs and lows that come with that.

“You try to do your best to keep those girls moving in a positive direction because things get hard,” Wood said. “If you lose basketball games, you have tough moments. And so I was prepared to have us be ready for those moments.”

What helped was getting out in front of that adversity. Wood had his coaching staff and every varsity and junior varsity player meet up before the season to discuss the standards for the Firebirds. The girls first split up into small groups to discuss on and off the court goals before reconvening with the coaching staff in a large group.

“They all had a voice and shared a dialogue about that,” Wood said. “So it wasn’t just me dictating, ‘Here’s how we’re going to play this year and here’s who’s going to shoot for us.’ It’s them talking about it.”

After writing down those goals, it was also important to be cognizant of them throughout the season. If ever the Firebirds slipped up, Wood was sure to remind them of their previous agreements.

“If we were not meeting those standards at any time, it would be like, ‘Wait a minute, girls you talked about this,'” Wood said. “‘You set this standard for us in the beginning of the season. This is where we have to be.’

“So I’ve just found that it helps hold everybody accountable when everybody’s had a voice to say who we’re going to be as a basketball team.”

What helped was having a “special group of seniors” — guards Joy Nunoo, Raven Gueary and Kesten, and forwards Macky Moore and Nyasha McVay — that bought in right away. Wood attributes much of that to the group’s “amazing effort” on and off the court.

“They didn’t ever question why we were doing certain things a certain way,” Wood said. “Whatever I asked them to do, they didn’t question it like, ‘Well we haven’t done things a different way in the past. Why would we do it this way now?’

“It was just a complete buy-in from the beginning.”

Even with that leadership established, trust still had to be built. Wood said that bond is established at different points for different players, such as Kesten trusting Wood to help her make plays in late-game situations midseason.

“One of the hardest parts of taking over a basketball program is getting to know each other,” Wood said. “It’s almost like by the end of the season, you kind of get there. Then all of a sudden it’s over. Fortunately we had a great group of seniors and they were great kids and they all bought in.”

Slowly, that trust in Wood built up throughout the season, from the first game against Blue Valley West all the way into sub-state play against Washburn Rural. A lot of that comes from the three things that Wood says his players can control no matter what: competing, supporting one another and having fun.

And while it may have been difficult at times — such as the loss to Washburn Rural — Wood said he saw “tremendous growth both individually and as a group” through it.

“Unfortunately, we didn’t beat Washburn Rural, but man those kids played hard and they played well,” Wood said. “It was tough to lose that night, but at the same time I saw us playing Free State basketball of what my standard is of who we’re going to be. And they bought into that. That’s the biggest growth that I saw from us throughout the season.”


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