FSHS boys basketball aims to become ‘complete team’ this summer entering promising season

photo by: Shane Jackson

Free State head coach Sam Stroh talks to his team after the conclusion of its summer camp on Thursday at FSHS on June 24, 2021.

When the 2021-22 campaign begins in December, Free State’s boys basketball team will undoubtedly be one of the top contenders to capture the Class 6A state title at the end of the season.

After all, the Firebirds return six of their top-eight players from last year’s squad that made it all the way to the semifinals. FSHS will also bring multiple newcomers into the mix, thanks to a couple impact transfers and some more players who had strong seasons at the junior varsity level last year.

For now, though, Free State is focused on getting the most out of this offseason.

“(We are) just trying to figure out how to become a complete team and play to our potential,” FSHS head coach Sam Stroh said following the final day of the summer camp on Thursday. “I think (that happens with) stuff like this. Playing in the gym, whether it’s open gym or playing summer league games. All those types of things are team-building experiences.”

But the first week of the offseason served as a harsh reminder for the Firebirds about how long that process might take. They didn’t play as well as they had expected in their first action of the offseason. Free State struggled to find the right rotations and looked disoriented.

“It looked like we’ve never played together,” said Jordan Brown, who transferred from Basehor-Linwood and will spend his senior season with the Firebirds.

Senior point guard Mozae Downing, who has been a starter since his first day with the program, agreed with that sentiment. He noted that the team’s spacing was a major issue.

“The first weekend didn’t really go as planned,” Downing said. “We were just starting to play with each other.”

In a way, that week could actually end up being a good thing. The offseason is supposed to be the time for FSHS to work things out before the games really count. And it was a humbling experience for a team with high expectations this winter.

“It just opened our eyes,” Brown said. “We’re not invincible.”

“It was for sure humbling because we know we have the pieces,” Downing added. “We just got to put them all together.”

photo by: Shane Jackson

Free State senior Mozae Downing defends teammate Jordan Brown during its summer camp on Thursday at FSHS on June 24, 2021.

The team responded well to that early adversity, however. Free State won all five games during 810 Varsity’s Summer Slam last weekend, earning victories over Park Hill, Olathe South, Park Hill South, Blue Springs South and Skutt Catholic High School.

“Last weekend, we won five games out of five,” Stroh said. “That’s what you want to see out of the summer. Some success. But, at the same time, losing and failing is a good thing. So you can improve on these things as the summer goes along.”

Fresh off the conclusion of a four-day team camp, this weekend figures to be another opportunity to see how Free State stacks up at this point in the offseason. The Firebirds are competing in the 19th annual KAMO Hoops Shootout, which is an event that lasts three days and features over 30-plus varsity teams.

“It’s going to be big,” Brown said. “I look forward to getting out there and playing against the best teams in the Kansas City, Missouri area and go win a championship.”

photo by: Shane Jackson

Free State senior Emmanuel Epelle drives to the rim during its summer camp on Thursday at FSHS on June 24, 2021.

Whether or not Free State wins the whole thing on Sunday, this team figures to have a lot of firepower this upcoming season.

Brown, a shooting guard, will be a dynamic addition and he already has scholarship offers from Missouri State and Austin Peay. Junior Calvin Clements, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Veritas Christian High School, could also make an immediate impact for Free State.

They will add to an already strong nucleus from last year’s team. The Firebirds bring back three starters in Downing, Cooper Jackson and Jailen Thompson. Downing led the team in rebounding and assists last year on his way to being named to the All-Sunflower League first team, while Jackson was an All-Sunflower League second-team selection.

Senior guard Dash Cleveland also started a bunch of games last year for FSHS. Senior guard Isaac Gonzales is arguably the best shooter on the team and came off the bench to knock down a number of shots last season. The Firebirds expect contributions from Jet Dineen and Emmanuel Epelle, both of whom had plenty of success at the junior varsity level last year.

“(It is) a good group right now in terms of chemistry and playing together,” Stroh said. “We’re excited about the season. It’s fun to have them back in the gym this summer.”

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