Firebirds advance to state semifinals for second time in school history
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As senior Jacob Pavlyak dribbled out the clock with Firebirds leading the Wichita South Titans 48-42, he looked to his right to see the Free State bench celebrating their quarter-final win in the Kansas State 6A Boys Basketball Tournament.
The quarter-final win was the Firebirds first appearance in the tournament since 2013. Last year’s sub state game was a heart-breaker for the program, losing by two in overtime. Traveling to the Charles Koch Arena was a new experience for Free State, but head Coach Sam Stroh has taken teams to the tournament twice before with previous schools.
He had simple advice for his team on how to handle the pressure of a State Tournament game. “Relax, have fun, do your job and win,” Stroh said. They did just that.
With Stroh in his second year as head coach at Free State, senior Cameron Clark has gained more play time and has seen changes in the team. “Coach Stroh is a good coach,” Clark said. “Everyone is different, but when we play together like a family…the outcomes are good for us.”
From the start of the game, the Firebirds leaned on junior and point guard Garrett Luinstra and center Clark, who were the star players in a 68-59 win at Derby in the sub-state championship. Luinstra got off to a hot start scoring 7 of the Firebirds’ first 9 points. Later in the first half, Clark electrified the arena with a rim-shattering putback dunk. Together, the two accounted for 18 of the team’s 23 first half points.
The Titans, who had a skillful guard and powerful big man of their own to match Luinstra and Clark, played a physical game and were not afraid to battle it out in the paint. After a hard fought first half, many of the players came out slow in the third quarter, except for senior Shannon Cordes, who had zero first half points. His eight third quarter points and a 7-0 run helped push the Firebird lead to 36-28. Wichita South continued to battle back and never let the game get out of their reach.
The Firebirds made their free throws during crunch time. Luinstra was 7 for 7 from the charity stripe, and Cordes also helped in putting the game out of reach, making 4 free throws of his own. Ultimately, the Firebirds were able to finish strong against Wichita South. For the first time since 2007 and the second time in school history, they will face Blue Valley Northwest at the Koch Arena on Friday at 8:15 p.m. for the state semifinal championship.