Seemingly sinking before saving the ship is what coach Dirk Wedd will remember most about the 1999 Lawrence High football season.
LHS lost five in a row before winning back-to-back games to set up a district championship with cross-town rival Free State.
"We lost five in a row and we were able to reach our goal of playing on Oct. 29 for something important and they accomplished it," Wedd said.
The Lions reached Friday's game against the Firebirds with a state playoff berth at stake, but were nipped, 31-28, in overtime. Free State qualified for the playoffs for the first time.
"Our kids played their guts out and came up a little short," Wedd said. "We had a lot of opportunities to win the football game. Hopefully the young kids learned a valuable lesson in taking advantage of every break. I know they learned a lot from the senior class. I think the seniors taught them how hard you have to play going in as that big of underdog."
The Lions finished the season with a 3-6 record in Wedd's first year as the LHS head coach. Wedd spent nine years as an assistant to Dick Purdy, who announced his retirement in late April.
Five of Lawrence's losses were decided late in the fourth quarter. The lone exception was a 49-7 thumping from Olathe South, which reached the state playoffs with an 8-1 record.
"We knew we had some shortcomings," Wedd said. "They were undersized and didn't have speed. And if you look at this team from May, they lost a great football coach -- maybe the best high school coach in the state of Kansas -- and they overcame all those problems to nearly defeat a heavy favorite."
Unlike recent LHS teams, the Lions depended on the pass. Senior quarterback Bryce McMichael passed for 950 yards, the most by a Lion QB since Lance Flachsbarth tossed for 1,028 yards in 1986.
"We had a quarterback who really fit the type of offense we wanted to run -- rolling out and hitting high-percentage passes," Wedd said.
McMichael also led the Lions in rushing with 427 yards and finished with 1,377 yards total offense -- fifth in the Sunflower League.
"We knew Bryce could throw it and he proved it," Wedd said.
A couple of Lions came on late in the season. Junior Dustin Goodin, primarily a linebacker the first half of the season, started at fullback the final four weeks and finished with 388 rushing yards and a team-high eight touchdowns. He had consecutive 100-yard games against Olathe South, Topeka and Leavenworth.
Senior Blake Allen, who had never played high school football before, emerged as a deep threat for the Lions and handled kickoff and PAT duties. He finished with 13 catches for 206 yards and two TDs plus connected on 19 PATs.
The LHS special teams were led by senior Jason Fender, who finished second in kickoff returns with a 27.3 return average and third in punting at 35.2 yards a punt.
Early in the season, Lawrence's defensive secondary was tested and surrendered a chunk of yards. The defensive backs had improved by the end of the season, Wedd said.
"I looked out there once (against Free State) and we had one veteran defensive back (Clint Morgan), two defensive backs (Allen and Damon Benitez) who last year had paint on their face and were cheering in the stands and one (Rob Scott) who was in junior high last year," Wedd said. "If that's not a football team that hasn't come a long ways, I don't know what is."
The Lions' 3-6 record was the school's worst since 1974, when Bill Freeman won three games his first year as LHS coach. Freeman wound up as the Lions' second winningest coach and coached five state championships before retiring following the 1989 season.
"I really believe we made some positive strides," Wedd said. "I don't think the record is indicative of where the program is going. The kids did a good job adapting to my style. I think they bought into what we were trying to do as far as getting more kids out and playing with more enthusiasm. I think we took some positive steps to bring the program back to where people want it to be."
-- Steve Rottinghaus' phone message number is 832-7152. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org