Overland Park No third-time charm for Free State High's football team.
Shawnee Mission West ended the Firebirds' season for the third straight year with a 31-14 triumph in a battle of the unbeaten Sunflower League co-champions in the Class 6A state semifinals Friday night at SM South District Stadium.
"They were better than us last year and the year before," Free State linebacker Andy Petz said. "This time it was two great teams. Man, I just want to play them again."
But Petz and the 19 other seniors on the best football team in the school's 10-year history won't have that opportunity again.
"They're a great team. They hit hard," said Petz, "but they got the breaks. We shot ourselves in the foot."
In fact, the Firebirds shot off every toe on that foot with five turnovers - three fumbles and two interceptions. The Vikings (12-0) converted three of those Free State gaffes into 17 points - the winning margin.
"You can't give up five turnovers and beat a good football team," coach Bob Lisher said.
Two of the lost fumbles were charged to running back Brian Murphy, and Lisher wasn't so sure they were actually fumbles.
"They were very questionable, I thought," Lisher said.
The first cough-up occurred late in the first quarter when Ryan Murphy tossed a pass to twin brother Brian in the right flat. Momentarily, the ball came loose and SM West's Cory Maher picked it up and ran 18 yards into the end zone for the Vikings' first touchdown.
Lisher thought the pass was incomplete.
"It didn't look to me like he caught the ball," the Free State coach said, "but that's what they (the officials) said."
Murphy's other fumble occurred early in the fourth quarter and led to a 44-yard field goal by Jared Witter that enlarged the Vikes' lead to 24-14. Lisher questioned that one, too, saying he thought Murphy's momentum had been stopped long before the ball bounced away.
A fumble by Ryan Murphy also led to a short-field TD for the Vikings late in the first half. He also tossed a pair of interceptions, but one was a late fourth-down desperation heave and the other proved inconsequential.
Ryan Murphy may have been guilty of three giveaways, but he was virtually the entire Free State offense, accounting for 321 of the Firebirds' 353 yards. Murphy threw for 210 yards and rushed for 111.
Meanwhile, brother Brian, the other half of the Firebirds' two-pronged attack, never did come untracked. Brian settled for 23 yards in eight carries and gained only two yards on two receptions.
"They just outplayed us, that's all," Ryan Murphy said. "They deserve credit. They're a great team. We couldn't get our running game going, and they capitalized on our mistakes."
Murphy set season highs with 18 completions and 34 attempts, but his 210 passing yards were only his third highest total of the season. Murphy completed 10 of 14 passes for 135 yards in the first half, but was just 8 of 20 for 75 yards in the second half.
"We had opportunities to make plays and we didn't make them," Lisher said. "You have to be able to execute and we were struggling in the second half."
Free State appeared to have received a break when standout SM West quarterback Blake Lawrence didn't play in the first half because of a shoulder injury. Witter, also the Vikes' punter and place-kicker, replaced him.
However, Lawrence started the second half and led one TD drive and delivered a 52-yard TD run for the clincher with 1:51 remaining.
Asked about Lawrence's effect, Lisher said he didn't think it was a factor, adding, "They had Witter and he's a pretty good quarterback, too."
In the final accounting, Free State outgained the Vikings, 353 yards to 338, but SM West had only two turnovers and neither led to a Firebirds' score.
"Our defense played very, very well," Lisher said. "Our offense was good, too, except for the turnovers."
Free State finished with an 11-1 record. No other Firebirds' team had ever compiled a record better than 7-3.