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By Chris Geinosky

For the past half century, Liberty High School has hosted one of the most well-respected boys basketball tournaments in Missouri.

This year’s event – the 51st annual C.W. Stessman Invitational – will only bolster that legacy. The eight-team field features three state-ranked teams, highlighted by the host Blue Jays, who remain undefeated and sit atop both the SBLive Missouri Top 25 power rankings and Class 6 state coaches poll.

“We’re definitely going to be tested this week,” Liberty head coach Roger Stirtz said.. “This tournament always has quality teams, and this year is no different. There are good programs and good programs coming in here. Fans are going to see a lot of good basketball in the Fieldhouse this week.”

Liberty (13-0), which has not lost since last year’s Class 6 state championship game against Springfield Kickapoo, enters as the favorite to reclaim the title at the Stessman Invite. Also consider the Blue Jays have lost only once in their past 28 games dating back to last January.

Despite losing three starters from last year’s state runner-up team, the Blue Jays return eight players now with state experience. That experience, combined with their talent and chemistry has resulted in the most efficient display of basketball in the state through the first half of the season.

Through 13 games, Liberty has averaged 68 points per contest. The Blue Jays have committed only 118 turnovers on the season (9.1 per game) while dishing out 183 assists and are on pace to set an all-time program record for points per possession. 

But as good as they’ve been scoring the basketball, they may have been even better defensively. Liberty has surrendered a mere 46 points per contest while racking up 110 steals and 34 blocked shots to this point.

“This is probably the most unselfish team I’ve ever had,” said Stirtz, who has guided the Liberty program to the state playoffs four times in the past five years, and even more noteworthy, a pair of state final four appearances in the past four seasons. “When you combine that with their skill and experience, that’s what makes this group special. But honestly, this is one of the best defensive teams we’ve ever had as well, if not the best. Coach (Kevin) Baker deserves a lot of the credit for our success at that end of the floor. It seems like that’s where it all starts for this group.”

Leading this year’s team is the coach’s son, Bennett, who has blossomed into one of the top all-around players in the state. A smooth 6-foot-5 senior guard, Bennett Stirtz owns an impressive stat line, averaging 17.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.8 steals and 1.2 blocks per contest. Oh, and by the way, he’s shooting 64.9 percent from the floor and 40.6 percent from 3-point range. 

However, the Blue Jays have four other senior standouts in the starting lineup. Point guard Luke Stubbs (13.1 points per game) gives the Blue Jays one of the best backcourt tandems around.

Karson Milbrandt, who’s actually a better pitcher from Liberty’s reigning state championship baseball team than basketball player, is averaging 12.4 points per contest while shooting a team-leading 41.7 percent from long range. Dylan Gormont, another pitching prospect who stands 6-foot-8, provides a presence inside, while sharpshooter Spencer Blaine (5.9 points per game on 40.6 percent 3-point shooting) can be counted on to provide a scoring punch.

Two other seniors, Palmer Holst and Joel Stepp, and junior Kai Bennett have all contributed off the bench as well, rounding out Liberty’s talented top eight.

“Without a doubt, we have some of the best team chemistry I’ve ever seen in my time playing the game,” Blaine pointed out. “We have a lot of depth on this team. We can go 9-10 deep and we don’t see much of a drop-off, and we have some great coaches backing us up. We just love playing together.”

But as good as the Blue Jays have been in recent years, there’s one thing they have been unable to accomplish – win their home tournament. Liberty has come up short in the finals of the Stessman Invite in each of the past two years, both times against rival Staley.

And once again, the Falcons look to play spoiler. Staley, ranked No. 5 in the SBLive power poll, enters the tournament with a 12-2 record after dropping a 60-59 heartbreaker against No. 8 Christian Brothers College (St. Louis) this past weekend. 

Standout guard Kyan Evans (15.5 points per game) is the straw that stirs the drink for Coach Chris Neff’s club. Staley can also attack opponents with a barrage of athletic inside players, including Kayden Fish. 

William Chrisman, which is currently ranked No. 5 in the coaches Class 5 state poll, is another dangerous team on tournament bracket. Dayne Herl, who was a summer teammate of Bennett Stirtz in the offseason, leads the Bears in both scoring (17.8) and rebounding (7.9). Jessie Minter (13.2) has also averaged double figures in the scoring column this season.

Belton has been a program on the rise in recent years. Giovanni Mack (15.2 points and 7.2 rebounds), Greg Lyles (13.8 points) and Naheim Northern (9.8 rebounds and 7.9 boards) have led the Pirates. 

“We don’t talk about winning,” Coach Stirtz explained. “We focus on playing well, and if we do that, the winning will take care of itself. When it comes to tournaments like this one, we talk about moving to the right of the bracket one game at a time, and hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to play for a championship. ...

“The thing I’m concerned with is that we keep getting better. That’s easy to say and tough to do, especially with all the ups and downs of a four-month season. We just want to keep building momentum as we move into the second-half of the season.”

C.W. Stessman Invitational schedule

Tuesday, Jan. 18

Staley vs. Leavenworth (Kansas), 4 p.m.

Belton vs. Columbia Hickman, 5:30 p.m.

Olathe Northwest (Kansas) vs. William Chrisman, 7 p.m.

Liberty vs. KC East, 8:30 p.m.

Thursday, Jan. 20

Consolation semifinals and semifinals

Friday, Jan. 21

Championship Night