Free State High won football games when it counted the most.
Winless through the first six weeks, the Firebirds bashed Leavenworth, 32-15, on Friday night at Haskell Stadium to cap a 3-0 run in district and advance to the Class 6A state playoffs.
"We would have liked to see a few more victories in those first six weeks," said Firebird coach Bob Lisher, whose squad qualified for postseason with a 3-6 record and posted its first win at Haskell since a playoff-clinching win over Lawrence High two years ago. "Our kids did not give up, always had good attitudes and knew they had it in them. It was a matter of putting things together. We have put it together and hopefully we can carry it on for a week or two.
"They earned this all themselves and they didn't have to rely on anybody else."
The Firebirds, making their second state appearance in the program's five-year history, will face top-ranked Olathe North on Friday at Olathe District Activities Center in the state quarterfinals. O-North, 9-0 and the defending state champion, beat previously unbeaten Olathe South, 27-20, on Friday to advance.
Against Leavenworth (1-8), Free State took control early when junior Leroy Goodman returned the opening kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown, his second TD return of the season. Free State also scored on a pass, two running plays and a punt return.
"Our special teams did a good job for us, not only on the touchdowns," Lisher said. "I thought for the most part our punt team and kickoff coverage was very good. Special teams did a pretty good job for us."
FSHS senior Walker Douglas did a good job. He accounted for 123 yards total offense 74 rushing and 49 receiving with two rushing TDs and a receiving TD.
Douglas savored the state berth, especially after the sluggish start.
"We had to do a little soul searching," said Douglas, who also had a fumble recovery. "Our character was tested the last three weeks and I felt we did a good job facing adversity."
Douglas' 11-yard TD run with 11:02 left in the fourth quarter gave Free State a comfortable 32-7 margin.
"I wish we could have put them away a little earlier and let more people get in the ball game," Douglas said.
Free State, coming off a 16-0 victory over Lawrence High which put them in control of district, finished with 326 yards total offense and limited Leavenworth to 125 yards.
The Firebirds capitalized on four Pioneer turnovers three fumbles and an interception.
Free State senior cornerback Andron Cruse soared to pick off a Josh Smith pass with 2:23 left in the final period.
"Nobody thought we could get there (to the playoffs) and we proved them wrong," Cruse said. "We all came together as a team and we figured out what our defense needed to do. We trusted each other and got it done."
With the victory, the Firebirds improved to 5-0 all-time against Leavenworth and snapped a seven-game skid at Haskell.
Free State lost its first four games by a combined 20 points. The Firebirds then lost 37-7 to Olathe North and 45-7 to Olathe South.
The Firebirds, though, shook off the six losses to reach state with decisive wins over Topeka, Lawrence and Leavenworth.
"Three weeks ago we made a decision that we were going to go out here and some way, some how find a way to win district," Lisher said. "All praise goes to them. They made the plays they had to make all three games and they got themselves in the playoffs. They're district champions. I'm very proud of them."