Despite strange end to the season, Free State boys remain proud of all they accomplished

photo by: Shane Jackson

Free State senior DK Middleton looks to make a move past a Blue Valley Northwest defender during the opening round of the Class 6A state tournament on Thursday at Wichita State University on March 12, 2020.

Around this time of year, Free State boys basketball head coach Sam Stroh would normally be sitting down with his players for postseason evaluations. He’d meet with returners to discuss the future and have an exit meeting with his seniors.

Thanks to technology, he can still do so, but the coronavirus pandemic has forced Stroh to adjust his usual game plan.

“So all that stuff had to be done online this year, just through emails, which was a little different,” Stroh said in a phone interview. “We’ve just been texting our guys and our coaches, kind of giving them updates, just with what’s going on. There’s still a lot of uncertainty.”

But Stroh has also had time to reflect on what the Firebirds accomplished on the court this season. Free State finished the year 17-6 with a share of the Sunflower League title and a fourth straight trip to state.

“So yeah, I think we checked off some of the boxes we wanted to get checked off in terms of (when we started) the year,” Stroh said.

The Firebirds’ season ended in a 55-48 loss to Blue Valley Northwest in the first round of the Class 6A state tournament, but even if Free State had won, it wouldn’t have played another game — the tourney was called off entirely shortly afterward because of the pandemic.

“There were kids around us from other teams that won that you could tell that they were disappointed,” Stroh said. “Some of them even had tears in their eyes. And our guys were obviously disappointed in the way their season ended.

“The whole night was weird in terms of the way it ended. But obviously, you know, there’s bigger things in life than basketball.”

• • •

Free State’s success in the 2019-20 season came from an unselfish mindset on offense and a sturdy defense. The Firebirds allowed just 45.3 points per game defensively, one of the top marks in Class 6A.

“We didn’t talk about that necessarily in November about leading the state in points against,” Stroh said. “But it was something as the season went on where we were like, ‘Hey fellas, let’s keep this number at (45 or 46) the rest of the season.'”

Coming into the season, Stroh and his assistant coaches were unsure what the team would look like. Stroh said he’s played anywhere from six to nine players in his rotations, and he knew there were three or four returners who played significant minutes the year before.

“We just wanted to figure out, ‘OK, who can help us win games?'” Stroh said. “As the season went on, everyone that played helped us win a game. We had some games where every single guy made a play or two to help us win a game. That’s pretty uncommon these days.”

But two players were especially important on both ends of the floor: senior forward DK Middleton and sophomore point guard Mozae Downing-Rivers.

Middleton led the team with 10.0 points per game and was named to the All-Sunflower League first team.

“On a team like ours, we need DK to do other things beside scoring,” Stroh said. “A lot of the time (defensively) we put him on the most athletic wing or sometimes the leading scorer on the other team. He had a really good year.”

Downing-Rivers was named to the third team after starting at point guard for Free State for the second year in a row.

“He’s a winner,” Stroh said. “That’s a credit to him stepping in as a freshman last year and obviously continuing that as a sophomore. And we’re obviously expecting big things from Mo down the road as well.”

• • •

One major point of emphasis for the Firebirds has been studying the game in the film room and learning from their mistakes.

“Every loss we had this year, I thought we got better the next game,” Stroh said.

Thanks to online tools such as Hudl, players are able to watch and learn from their own videos as well as from their opponents’ videos. Stroh encourages all his players — from junior varsity to his varsity starters — to watch on their own time, as well.

“A lot of times, whether we win or lose, our guys will talk about the game the following day,” Stroh said. “What did we do well? What could we do better?”

Self-study is especially key right now. With school closed and the weight room not open, Stroh’s putting the accountability on his players during this “weird time.”

Stroh and the players are wondering about summer AAU schedules and how the Firebirds will prepare for next season. The Midwest Basketball Showcase — scheduled for June 23 in Kansas City, Mo. — is also up in the air. Stroh, who’s coaching in the event and is on the selection committee, said he’s been told there will be a decision by May 1 on whether the event will happen this year.

Whatever happens, Stroh is hopeful the Firebirds will work out on their own and be ready to work once the team can reconvene.

“That will take some maturity for high school kids, not only from our area but around the nation,” Stroh said. “We’ll figure out right away who’s put the work in when we get back. Does your body look better? Do you look more in shape?

“I know they have high expectations for next season, and so do we as coaches.”


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