Both Shawnee Mission South and Free State High have first-year coaches this season, but the similarities end there.
The difference in experience and size was apparent as the Firebirds fell to the older, stronger Raiders, 38-0, on Senior Recognition Night at Shawnee Mission South District Stadium.
"We're not in the same situation," SM South coach Brett Potts said. "I inherited 24 seniors that had played varsity football before and I inherited great leadership. He (Free State coach Bob Lisher) has had to build that experience from scratch. He's had to build that experience through fire."
SM South's seniors accounted for 273 of the Raiders' 289 total yards and all 38 points. The Firebirds have just three seniors listed on their roster.
"I want to give credit to coach Lisher and to his group," Potts said. "It's tough coming out and playing a 6A schedule, but those kids showed heart."
In fact, Free State (0-4) only trailed 14-0 at halftime and could have been even closer.
The Firebirds forced a fumble on the Raiders' first play from scrimmage which was recovered by sophomore Brian Erb. Free State used a mix of junior quarterback Matt Heider's passes and sophomore tailback Chris Wheatley's runs to drive down to the SM South 8, but had to settle for a 23-yard field goal attempt which sailed wide right.
"I think we made improvements, we just didn't get any points on the board," Lisher said. "We have to learn to get the ball in the end zone. Every time we got down there we had something go wrong -- a penalty, a little interception, dropped pass, missed blocking assignment -- things that are correctable."
After the defense held the Raiders to three plays and a punt, the Firebirds' offense again drove deep into SMS territory. This time the team was pushed back by a holding penalty and again the field goal attempt -- this one a 41-yarder -- was off the mark.
Shawnee Mission South finally broke the 0-0 tie, scoring on a two-yard touchdown run by senior running back T.J. Hammett with 10:02 to play in the first half.
After a Firebird punt, the Raiders marched 42 yards on nine plays, a drive which was concluded by senior quarterback John McGee's 11-yard touchdown run. It was one of the many Raiders' option plays which had the Firebirds befuddled all night.
"We knew coming into this game that they did have a good option-type, outside the tackles running game," FSHS junior lineman Chad Fulks said. "We just didn't get it stopped like we should have. We'd hoped to keep the score down and win tonight, but things didn't work out that way. I feel like the guys worked really hard tonight."
Trailing 14-0 at intermission, Free State never felt it was out of the game, but Shawnee Mission South forced a fumble and an interception on the Firebirds' first two possessions and never looked back.
The Raiders turned the two Firebird turnovers into 10 points on a 32-yard field goal by senior Jarrod Tyson and a 13-yard touchdown pass to senior Mike Sjostrom.
"We put our defense in a couple of bad situations to start the second half," Lisher said. "Once that starts, it's kind of a waterfall effect. It's a matter of taking care of the football so we don't put our defense in that position."
Despite the miscues, Lisher was pleased with his team's passing attack. Heider completed 12 of 20 passes for 124 yards, including six throws to junior wide receiver Vincent Walker for 63 yards.
After Heider had the wind knocked out of him early in the fourth quarter, sophomore Nathan Vail came in to relieve him and completed on three of six passes for 22 yards. The Firebirds as a team finished with 216 total yards.
"At times I'm very, very proud of them," Lisher said. "At other times I don't know what's going on. Sometimes we forget our assignments and don't get things done correctly. But, I told them that's part of the growing process. We have to learn how not to do those silly things."