Senior Justin Hicks inspired FSHS boys basketball with speech before substate championship

photo by: Chance Parker

Senior Justin Hicks holds the substate championship plaque Friday night at FSHS on March 5, 2021. Free State clinched the Class 6A substate championship with a 44-31 victory over Washburn Rural.

Injured Free State senior Justin Hicks couldn’t inspire his teammates with bold plays on the court during the substate championship game on Friday. So he decided to inspire them with bold words instead.

Free State had been in a slump, losing by 16 to its crosstown rival, LHS, in the regular-season finale and then underperforming against Junction City in the substate opener.

Hicks knew the Firebirds could do better than this. And he told them so in a rousing speech at Thursday’s practice.

And, according to his teammates and coach, that made all the difference in how the Firebirds played against Washburn Rural on Friday night. The Firebirds (19-3) played stifling zone defense, held the Junior Blues (13-7) to their lowest offensive output of the season and led wire-to-wire in their 44-31 victory.

“We don’t win the game without ‘Guppy’ Hicks,” FSHS head coach Sam Stroh said, using the senior’s longtime nickname.

Stroh said the team had “been struggling big time” before Hicks gave his teammates a pep talk.

“It was the best speech I’ve heard in 16 years from a high school kid,” Stroh said.

photo by: Chance Parker

Free State clinched the Class 6A substate championship with a 44-31 victory over Washburn Rural Friday, March 5, 2021.

Hicks, who tore his meniscus more than a week ago and is only involved as a member of the scout team now, said he knew the team was having trouble and wanted to help out, even if there wasn’t much he could do.

“It’s hard for me to physically contribute to the team right now,” Hicks said. “I thought I could contribute in a different way by mentally preparing them. I just talked about what I’ve been through these last four years and how much this team and program means to me.

“And how amazing it would be for us to be the first team to ever win state at Free State,” Hicks added. “Which I 100% believe we can be.”

At practice after that, the team immediately changed. The Firebirds were playing together as a team, moving the ball on offense and communicating as a unit on defense.

“We had a bad practice coming out of (Tuesday’s) game,” junior Mozae Downing said. “My boy Gup gave us a word before the next practice. Then we had the best practice we’ve ever had. That was the key to the game.”

Junior Dash Cleveland said he could empathize with Hicks, and he used that as motivation.

“It meant a lot to me,” Cleveland said. “I just put myself in his shoes. If I was looking down on my team and I couldn’t play, and just seeing them goof off, I would be mad too. I just put myself in his shoes to understand where he’s coming from.”

That momentum from Thursday’s practice carried over into the game on Friday. The Firebirds never trailed against Washburn Rural on their way to their fifth straight state berth.

When Free State closed the game out with a 9-0 run, the team got the opportunity to thank Hicks for the inspiration: He was able to get out on the court in the final 34.6 seconds, alongside Cleveland, senior Kris Daniels, sophomore Jailen Thompson and junior Jet Dineen. To put the finishing touch on the victory, Hicks dribbled near the top of the key as the crowd roared in approval.

“I wanted him to get a shot,” Cleveland said. “I was like, ‘Shoot it!'”

Once the final buzzer went off, Hicks passed the ball to an official. He then hoisted the substate championship plaque in the air as the team huddled around him in celebration. And he kept smiling and holding the plaque throughout the postgame photo session, cherishing one of the highlights of his high school career.

“We don’t win the game without him,” Stroh said. “He’s an important part to our team.”

Free State will host Wichita Heights (15-7) in the Class 6A quarterfinals at 6 p.m. Monday.

Washburn Rural (31)

Jack Bachelor 2-6 0-0 5, Joshua Williams 0-2 0-0 0, Joseph Berry 4-11 3-4 11, Jack Hutchinson 4-8 0-0 11, Brady Patterson 0-1 0-0 0, Davan Brady 1-5 0-0 2, Brock Howard 0-2 0-0 0, Quincey Kidd 1-7 0-0 2. Totals: 12-42 FG 3-4 FT 31 points.

Free State (44)

Mozae Downing 2-2 4-4 8, Dash Cleveland 1-3 0-0 2, Jailen Thompson 3-8 1-1 7, Andrew Piper 4-7 3-4 11, Cooper Jackson 2-5 0-0 4, Cole Wheeler 3-5 0-0 7, Isaac Gonzales 1-3 0-0 3, Kris Daniels 0-4 2-2 2. Totals: 16-36 FG 10-11 FT 44 points.

Washburn 4 6 12 9 — 31

Free State 6 11 9 18 — 48

3-point goals: WR 4–17 (Bachelor, Hutchinson 3); FS 2-11 (Wheeler, Gonzales). Turnovers: WR 7; FS 10. Fouled out: None.


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