Free State boys demonstrate mental toughness during 4-0 week

photo by: Chance Parker

Free State junior Cooper Jackson shoots the ball on a fast break against Shawnee Mission East. Free State won 78-75 in overtime Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.

It seems impossible to properly put into perspective what Free State’s boys basketball team accomplished last week.

The Firebirds played four games last week, including three in as many days between Thursday through Saturday. Three of those four contests came away from home, while FSHS even faced ranked opponents on back-to-back nights to close out the week.

And, yet, despite such a daunting stretch, Free State emerged victorious in all four games to keep its win streak intact. The Firebirds (16-2, No. 5 in Class 6A) have now won eight games in a row, in which half of those victories came during that five-day span.

“We kind of felt like an NBA team,” FSHS head coach Sam Stroh said. “We had shoot-around and film sessions just to kind of mentally prepare them.”

“Our guys did a good job on the scouting report,” Stroh added. “Our coaches did a good job preparing them in practice. Every team presented something different, in terms of personnel and what they do.”

Free State started off the week with a 55-40 road win over Olathe West on Tuesday before rolling to a 54-26 win at Shawnee Mission West on Thursday. The next two victories weren’t as easy for the Firebirds, however.

Composure was needed on Friday, as Free State managed to outlast Shawnee Mission East (No. 7 in Class 6A) by a 78-75 margin in overtime. Junior Cooper Jackson poured in 26 points, which marked the most points in a game by a FSHS player during that four-game stretch.

Approximately 19 hours later, Free State was back on the court for a road battle with Shawnee Mission South. Tired legs led to a 14-point deficit midway through the second quarter, but the Firebirds rallied to record a 59-51 win over the Raiders (No. 6 in Class 6A) on Saturday.

It was a stretch that proved a lot to Stroh, particularly after FSHS scored 28 points in the fourth quarter to complete the comeback against Shawnee Mission South

“They are mentally tough,” Stroh said. “I don’t see any panic or worry when things don’t go our way, whether it is the start of the game or the end of the game.”

A lot of that has to do with every player becoming more comfortable within their role on the team. Jackson, who has emerged as a key offensive player for FSHS, was the only player to finish in double figures in three of the four contests last week.

After knocking down five 3-pointers on Friday, Jackson netted 19 points on 5-of-12 shooting in Saturday’s victory. He also tallied 10 points against the Owls on Tuesday.

“Cooper has been a big spark the last two games,” Stroh said. “He played lights out in the second half (against Shawnee Mission South) and played a great game against (Shawnee Mission) East.”

photo by: Chance Parker

Free State junior guard Mozae Downing dribbles by the Shawnee Mission East defender. Free State won 78-75 in overtime Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.

A big reason why FSHS is so dangerous, however, is the multitude of scoring threats on the offensive end. Free State had six different players end up in double figures at least once during its perfect week.

Junior point guard Mozae Downing posted two double-digit outings by scoring 11 points against Olathe West and 13 points against Shawnee Mission East. He also directed the offense, finishing with six assists versus the Vikings and recording another four assists in the win over the Raiders.

Senior post Andrew Piper produced two double-digit performances on back-to-back nights, scoring 10 points on Friday and 14 more on Saturday. Senior guard Dash Cleveland did the exact same, ending up with 17 points in the former outing and recording 11 points in the latter contest.

“Mozae and Piper are leading the way,” Stroh said. “That’s a testament to their commitment to the game and years they’ve put in the program.”

Junior guard Isaac Gonzalez knocked down four 3-pointers in a 12-point performance against Shawnee Mission West, while sophomore guard Jailen Thompson registered 11 points in the win over Olathe West.

“Our bench has been giving us good minutes,” Stroh said. “Jailen has been playing well as well. He’s not a sophomore anymore. He’s been playing big-boy basketball now. It’s just a great overall team effort.”

As has been the case since Stroh took over the program in 2015, Free State’s calling card is still its overall team defense. The Firebirds have a knack for making life difficult on an opponent when they decide to lock it in on that end of the floor.

Free State surrendered 16 points to Olathe West in the first quarter before giving up a total of 16 points in the entire second half. FSHS then held Shawnee Mission West scoreless for an eight-minute stretch during the second period.

Jackson’s biggest play of the week was arguably his game-changing steal in overtime against the Lancers. Stroh credits his team’s commitment in the film room for that level of success on the defensive end.

It all has allowed the Firebirds to win eight games in a row, a stretch that started when Downing set the program record for most assists in a game against Shawnee Heights on Jan. 27.

According to MaxPreps, this is the longest stretch of consecutive victories under Stroh. FSHS has produced three different seven-game win streaks in Stroh’s six seasons at the helm, one of which took place earlier this year.

Free State also won seven straight in January of 2020, and put together seven consecutive victories during the 2015-16 campaign.

“They haven’t been all easy or pretty,” Stroh said of the latest win streak. “But we’ve been mentally tough and physically tough. That’s a credit to our kids.”

Free State will have only two games this upcoming week, starting with another road matchup against a Sunflower League opponent. FSHS will travel to Shawnee Mission North on Tuesday before welcoming Lawrence High to its house on Friday.

Box scores for 4-0 week by Free State

Tuesday, Feb. 9: FSHS 55, Olathe West 40

Free State 8 11 20 16 — 55

Olathe West 16 8 6 10 — 40

Free State (55)

Kris Daniels 6, Mozae Downing 11, Justin Hicks 1, Dash Cleveland 4, Jailen Thompson 11, Cole Wheeler 2, Isaac Gonzales 3, Andrew Piper 7, Cooper Jackson 10.

Thursday, Feb. 11: Free State 54, SM West 26

Free State 11 16 16 11 — 54

SM West 12 0 7 7 — 26

Free State (54)

Kris Daniels 5, Mozae Downing 7, Jailen Thompson 8, Andrew Piper 8, Cole Wheeler 8, Isaac Gonzales 12, Cooper Jackson 6.

Friday, Feb. 12: Free State 78, SM East 75

SME 15 19 22 12 7 — 75

FSHS 21 10 16 21 10 — 78

Free State (78)

Kris Daniels 0, Mozae Downing 13, Dash Cleveland 17, Jailen Thompson 9, Cole Wheeler 3, Andrew Piper 10, Cooper Jackson 26.

Saturday, Feb. 13: FSHS 59, SM South 51

Free State 10 8 13 28 — 59

SM South 13 14 8 16 — 51

Free State (59)

Mozae Downing 7, Jailen Thompson 8, Andrew Piper 14, Cooper Jackson 19, Dash Cleveland 11.


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