Jason Stoffer can remember a time, seemingly not so long ago, when he played just beyond the Haskell Stadium end zones, shagging the Lawrence High football team's field goal attempts.
Jason Thoren was there, too, and he remembers Stoffer.
"Yeah, we'd play our own game while the game was going on," Thoren said. "And I remember Jason. I used to stay away from him. He beat me up plenty of times. He was as big then as I am now."
Come fall, the two will again play on Haskell's field, but their game will be THE game, as LHS opens defense of its unprecedented four straight Class 6A state titles.
"Kids who move in here really don't know what it's like to sit up there in the stands in grade school and have your favorite players," Thoren said. "I never really went to college or pros. Lawrence High football was the main thing."
STOFFER, THOREN, Tim Loper and Brad Romme, all juniors this year, will bring the most varsity experience to the 1993 Lions. Stoffer and Loper each started 11 games on the line. Thoren started all 12 of last year's games at running back, and Romme, the second-string quarterback, had more passing yards than three Sunflower League starters.
Most of the Lions' experience is concentrated with those four players.
"We don't have as much experience as we had last year," LHS coach Dick Purdy said. "Last year, we had 15-20 players who played a lot. We're not close to that this year. Really we're replacing 10 on defense and eight on offense. But we have some pretty capable replacements."
Those replacements, generally, are big but slow, Purdy said.
"We're really thin on speed," Purdy said. "And we won't be as deep as we were a year ago. We've got a chance to be a really good football team, but I am concerned about depth and speed. We'll be a pretty big football team, for one more year. We're trying to fit the pegs in the holes. Well, actually, we're trying to find the pegs to put in the holes.
"AT SOME POSITIONS, we have lots of experience. At some positions, everybody's gone. I think we have the talent to do it again. But I don't know if the players think that, and I don't know how they'll respond."
The Lions will enter the season on a 19-game winning streak. Last year, they finished undefeated -- for the national-record 30th time -- and became the first team in state playoff history to win four straight large-class titles.
Here's a closer look at four of the Lions who likely will play a big role in the quest for No. 5. As testament to their skills, all four have received some interest from NCAA Div. I schools.
Thoren, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound fullback-linebacker, was second on the team last year with 783 rushing yards. He also finished second in points scored (62).
His numbers went up, he said, as his nervousness went down.
"Last year was a hard year," Thoren said. "I didn't know what it was all about. I was in two or three plays as a sophomore, but I didn't know how everything would go. I was nervous at the start of last season. I would always get nervous watching from the stands. Playing made it 10 times worse. But it got better after the second or third game. At the beginning of the season, I was nervous about what people would think of me. Toward the end of the season, I was nervous about the team we were playing."
Thoren, a three-sport athlete, is torn between football and baseball. He also played basketball.
"I haven't made up my mind yet," Thoren said of his post-high school plans. "I don't know what to pick. It's a hard decision for me. I don't want to stop playing either sport."
Thoren was a second-team all-Sunflower League running back and honorable mention at linebacker. Talk of the Lions' shot at a five-peat doesn't faze him.
"You never know. I think we could do it if we work hard," he said. "But we'll have to work hard like this year. There are a lot of good schools, a lot of good teams. I think we have something to prove. We lost a game as sophomores and last year's JV lost a game. But we don't think about it. You can't play protective and you can't think about it. You just go play."
Romme made his presence felt early, when he led the reserves to victory over the first-stringers in the preseason football jamboree.
During the season, he completed 11 of 14 passes for 255 yards with no interceptions. He also rushed for 97 yards.
"Coach Purdy put me in some big situations," Romme said. "That should help me out. I realize the quarterback has the load, and I'm sure I'll have it. But playing with the first-string last year should really help."
His best game was Lawrence's 35-13 win over Olathe South, when, subbing for starter John Catlin, he hit three of four passes for 84 yards and threw two touchdowns within one minute.
Romme, however, downplays that performance.
"I don't think I was any better than John," Romme said. "It was real weird. I came in that one game, and I played way above myself. What people didn't see was him every day at practice."
Romme also plays baseball, but the allure of LHS football has him mulling his college options.
"I want to play baseball, but I've thought about it because I've had success at Lawrence High," Romme said. "That's made me think about football. Jason Stoffer and Tim Loper have gotten all these letters from big-time schools. I've gotten a few. It makes me think if I want to play football."
He knows he does this fall.
"A lot of times, Jason (Thoren) and I will pop in a tape and just watch the crowd," Romme said. "I'm real excited. I went to Shawnee Mission North the other day to watch track, and I was out on the field and I thought, It will be awesome to be out there again. I didn't think I could have more fun than last year, but I'm sure this year will be fun, too."
Stoffer, a 6-2 1/2, 270-pound tackle, was nervous starting as a junior and, he said, it showed.
"We'll be a lot more relaxed this year," he said. "I won't be thinking as much about what to do. At the beginning of the year, we jumped offsides a lot because we were thinking what we were supposed to do."
He eventually overcame the jitters and ended up an honorable mention all-league offensive lineman.
A simple principle, he said, is his guide.
"Hard work. Everything you do is for next year," he said.
Once next year becomes this year, Stoffer plans to be an on-field leader.
"The seniors really helped us out last year," Stoffer said. "Next year, we'll help the juniors."
Loper, 6-3 1/2, 245, played both ways most of last year. He is penciled in as No. 1 offensive guard and No. 1 nose guard.
"We know what we're walking into now," he said. "We were really lucky to play last year. It helps going against all-league and all-state players. We knew our positions on the field, but we weren't the top dogs. We were rookies. It's a ranking system, but you don't talk about it."
"We're more comfortable now. It's a given if you're going into a situation where you started last year, you're going to start the next year unless you don't work for it."
Which fits nicely into Loper's guiding principle.
"We have a saying: Football begins when it ended," Loper said. "It never really stops."
Loper, for one, can't wait until it begins again.
"Oh, yeah, we're looking forward to it," he said. "We're anxious to see what happens. We talk about it all the time."