For the fourth year in a row, Free State High ended Washburn Rural's season with a trip to state on the line.
The Firebirds thumped the Junior Blues, 32-15, Friday night at Haskell Stadium, earning a trip to the Class 6A state playoffs.
Free State missed several early scoring opportunities, but scored 20 points in the final 17 minutes to put away the Junior Blues easily.
"I knew we would be in the football game if we came out and played the way we are capable of," Free State coach Bob Lisher said. "We didn't do that early on, but we came out in the second half and played well."
The Firebirds could not produce any offense in the first quarter - the only score in the first 12 minutes was a Rural field goal. The second quarter was filled with missed opportunities by the Firebirds, who three times drove inside the Washburn 10-yard line, but came away with only six points.
On its first possession of the second quarter, Free State quarterback Ryan Murphy hit Brett Lisher for a 48-yard pass that set up the Firebirds deep in the Junior Blues' territory. Driving with the ball inside the two-yard line, Lisher fumbled at the one-yard line, and Rural's Blair Diel recovered.
"We just shot ourselves in the foot on that drive," Lisher said.
The Firebirds were more efficient on their next drive, which started at the Junior Blues' 42 after Christian Ballard partially blocked a Rural punt.
It took the Firebirds just 52 seconds to score as Murphy threaded a 26-yard touchdown pass down the middle of the field to Brett Lisher. Jason Sneegas missed the extra point, but the Firebirds went ahead, 6-3.
The Junior Blues quickly responded. On the ensuing possession, Rural running back Mark Stotts broke loose for a 55-yard touchdown run, putting the Junior Blues back on top, 9-6, with just more than three minutes left in the half.
On their final play of the half, the Firebirds drove the ball inside the Washburn 10, but again could not capitalize. On fourth-and-six, the Firebirds ran a pass play that fell short, and Free State turned the ball over on downs and went into halftime trailing, 9-6.
"You know we had a fumble, we lost possession on downs, we were just hurting ourselves," Lisher said."
On their first possession of the third quarter, the Firebirds marched downfield on an 11-play drive that they again could not convert. On third-and nine from the 11, Brian Murphy's half-back pass intended for Dale Coons was picked off by Rural in the end zone.
The turning point in the game came with just under five minutes to play in the third quarter. Brian Murphy returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown, putting the Firebirds back on top, 12-9. Sneegas missed the PAT.
"When you get a play like that on special teams, it picks everyone on the team up," Lisher said. "I think that play had a lot to do with how the game ended."
Free State then rattled off 20 unanswered points. The Firebirds' defensive unit came up with several big plays to halt a Junior Blues drive at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth.
The defensive stop must have sparked the offense because, four plays later, Ryan Murphy hit Nick Ayre for a 62-yard TD, widening the Firebirds' lead to 19-9.
"We started to play better, and we got some help from our special teams," Lisher said. "But really, we just stopped shooting ourselves in the foot."
Rural scored on a 12-yard TD run with about two minutes left in the game, but it was too little, too late.
Free State will take on either Shawnee Mission East, Blue Valley North or Shawnee Mission West on Friday in the state playoffs.
Free State 32, Topeka Washburn Rural 15
Free State - - 0 - 6 - 6 - 20 - 32
Washburn Rural - 3 - 6 - 0 - 6 - - - 15
Rural - Blaine Matthews field goal
FSHS - Brett Lisher 26 pass from Ryan Murphy (Jason Sneegas kick failed)
Rural - Mark Stotts 55 run
FSHS - Brian Murphy 55 punt return (Sneegas kick failed)
FSHS - Nick Ayre 62 pass from Ryan Murphy (Sneegas kick)
FSHS - Ayre 18 pass from Ryan Murphy (Sneegas kick failed)
FSHS - Brian Murphy 66 run (Sneegas kick)
Rural - Mark Stotts 12 run (conversion failed)