Free State volleyball surges past Lawrence High in substate title game
photo by: Courtesy photo from FSHS
Free State’s volleyball team is headed to the Class 6A state tournament for the second year in a row.
It wasn’t always easy, but the Firebirds found a way to make the necessary plays to win a substate title at Olathe West High School on Saturday. Free State earned a two-set win (25-18, 25-20) over Olathe West in the substate opener and outlasted Lawrence High in three sets (25-23, 25-23, 25-23) in the substate championship.
The Firebirds, who dropped the second set to the Lions, had to erase multiple late deficits throughout the substate championship in order to notch their second trip to the state tourney in as many years under head coach Jayme Savage.
“It feels great, it was a team effort all the way around,” Savage said. “We knew from the get go that whoever was mentally tougher was most likely going to win. It was a gritty win, but a win nonetheless.”
It marks the first time in program history that FSHS is back-to-back substate champs. Free State had to mount a few comebacks to accomplish such history, with its most notable comeback taking place in the third and final set.
As the No. 4 seed, Lawrence (14-17) had knocked off top-seeded Gardner-Edgerton in three sets (26-24, 19-25, 25-23) and appeared on the verge of another upset. The Lions, who are two years removed from a state title, even had a 20-16 lead in the third set against the Firebirds.
Free State (18-13) battled back, and evened the score at 22-all. And that’s when the hard-fought match was really evident. With a chance to take the lead, the two local teams had a volley that lasted about 34 seconds.
“That was a momentum-changer,” junior Kenzie Marcum said. “Winning that (point) gave us momentum for the rest of the game.”
Nearly every player on the floor touched the ball on that play, starting with the serve by Free State sophomore Aubrey Duncan. Free State sophomore Sawyer Thomsen blocked a kill attempt by Lawrence’s Gianna Cooper within a matter of seconds.
LHS junior Brenna Schwada appeared to find an opening for a brief moment, but junior Madison Beeley had an impressive dig to keep the Firebirds alive. LHS senior Hadley Bird immediately answered with a dig of her own.
Lawrence senior I’yawa Brewer delivered an emphatic block on a kill attempt, and the ball headed straight to an opening on the Free State defense. FSHS sophomore Rylee Unruh was there to save the day, however, getting in front of the ball before it hit the ground and setting up Marcum with a good pass.
Marcum flicked the ball back to the Lions, who were then ultimately denied moments later on a block by Thomsen to net a much-needed point. Free State grabbed a 23-22 advantage after the lengthy possession, and it proved to be the difference.
“I thought we really pulled through today,” Thomsen said. “We had a lot of spirit.”
Thomsen ended up delivering the game-clinching kill on the assist by Unruh, finishing off a 25-23 win in the substate title game. With the team huddled up on the court, Unruh and Thomsen hugged in celebration.
Moments later, the Firebirds received their plaque for winning a second consecutive substate championship.
All three sets between Free State and Lawrence ended up being back-and-forth battles.
“I honestly thought we did better when we would get down by four or five points,” Marcum said. “Going into the game, we knew who we were playing for and I think everyone kept that in mind. We were playing for seniors and each other. I think that really helped bring everyone together as a team.”
LHS had a 22-21 lead late in the first set, but couldn’t hold on and Duncan delivered the game-clinching kill for a 25-23 win. The Firebirds put together another late surge in the second set, but Brewer ultimately wrapped up a 25-23 win for the Lions with a strong kill.
Free State’s comeback would not be denied in the third and final set.
“The main focus for us tonight was understanding who we play for,” Savage said. “When you take the focus off yourself, and play for a greater cause, good things happen and can come your way.”
The Class 6A quarterfinals will take place on Tuesday. Free State will face Olathe Northwest (26-0) on the road with a trip to the state semifinals on the line.