Firebirds, Lions prepare for different format in quarterfinals of Class 6A state tourney

photo by: Chance Parker

Free State junior Mozae Downing brings the ball past half court against Lawrence High. Free State fell 56-40 Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.

Just like in the past five seasons, Lawrence High and Free State are among the last eight teams standing in the Class 6A postseason. But a lot of other things about the state tournament will look different this year — including a tighter timeline for both teams and a rare home game in the opening round for the Firebirds

This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tournament will be spread out at different sites instead of being played entirely in Wichita. The quarterfinal round for each of the pairings will take place at the higher seed’s gymnasium, and only the winners of those matchups will get to travel to Wichita State.

For Free State, that means a home game in the opening round. The Firebirds will host Wichita Heights (15-7) on Monday.

The Firebirds knew a home game in the opening round was possible long before they defeated Washburn Rural in Friday’s substate championship game.

“We talked to the guys back in November (about it),” FSHS head coach Sam Stroh said. “If you have a good record, you are at home in the first round of state. Who has ever heard of that?”

But Stroh said his team wouldn’t get too comfortable.

“To play a home game is great,” Stroh said. “But it is still 0-0 to start the game. You have to play hard for 32 minutes.”

Lawrence won’t be as fortunate, despite entering the state tournament with a 19-1 overall record following its 44-43 substate win over Olathe West. Because of the predetermined substate pairings, LHS will have to travel to defending champion Blue Valley Northwest (21-1) on Monday for its quarterfinal matchup.

Blue Valley Northwest was the only team to defeat the Lions during the regular season. LHS lost to the Huskies on the road, 72-50, on Jan. 26, in a game where Blue Valley Northwest put Lawrence away in the final period.

“We’re on our revenge tour right now,” Lawrence senior Zeke Mayo said. “That fourth quarter in that game, it killed us, and we took that personal going into the next game and the game after that.”

Not only is the format different this year, but state squads also have to deal with a quick turnaround. The teams only have a weekend to prepare for their quarterfinal matchups.

FSHS and LHS are both equipped to handle that. The Firebirds have had to prepare for many games on a tight turnaround this season, including a stretch of three games in three days last month. And the Lions will have an easier time scouting because they’ve already faced their opponent once before.

FSHS had an easy practice Saturday morning to do some scouting on Wichita Heights. The Firebirds will practice one more time on Sunday afternoon.

“I feel like we are ready,” junior Dash Cleveland said on Friday. “I feel like if we could play a game right after this one, we would. We just have that momentum, and we are going to keep on progressing.”

The Lions seem to feel the same way.

“Whoever shows up on our plate is who we’re there for,” Mayo said. “I told the guys already: one game at a time. And Blue Valley Northwest just happens to be in our way, but we’ve got to do whatever it takes to win.”

LHS head coach Mike Lewis agreed.

“Each year we go in expecting to win (the state tournament),” Lewis said. “And nothing changes there. We’re ready to go on Monday, and let’s play to win.”

In the other two quarterfinal games, Haysville-Campus (19-2) is hosting Hutchinson (7-13) and Blue Valley North (18-3) has a home meeting with Shawnee Mission Northwest (14-6). After the quarterfinals, the final four teams will be reseeded based on their records. The semifinals will take place Thursday at Wichita State.

Class 6A state tournament

Substates 1 and 2: Haysville-Campus (19-2) vs. Hutchinson (7-13)

Substates 3 and 4: Free State (19-3) vs. Wichita Heights (15-7)

Substates 5 and 6: Blue Valley Northwest (21-2) vs. Lawrence (19-1)

Substates 7 and 8: Blue Valley North (18-3) vs. SM Northwest (14-6)

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