Archive for Friday, October 12, 2007

Free State wary of upcoming foes despite records

October 12, 2007

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Free State enters district play with moment

District play comes at a great time for the Firebirds football team. Free State beat Shawnee Mission on the road, which gives the team a huge boost. Enlarge video

Twice, in its 11-year history, the Free State High football program has entered district play with a 1-5 record and emerged as the champion.

So don't think for a second that the Firebirds (4-2) are overlooking their district opponents in 2007, despite the three other teams (Lawrence High, Topeka High and Washburn Rural) combining for a 5-13 record.

The most recent of Free State's two remarkable turnarounds came in 2004. The Firebirds opened the season with five straight losses, won in Week Six against Olathe Northwest and then picked up two of three victories in district play to advance to the Class 6A state playoffs. Their lone district loss that season came in triple overtime to Topeka High.

At 7 tonight, nearly three years later, Free State will open postseason play against Topeka High at Hummer Sports Park.

The Trojans enter the contest on the heels of an 8-0 loss to Topeka-Hayden and have logged just two victories this season. Despite Topeka High's less-than-impressive record, Free State coach Bob Lisher and his team are treating the Trojans like state contenders.

"If you don't show up and play every night, (losing in district) can happen," Lisher said. "We've proven it twice in the past."

The Firebirds have finished with a 2-1 record over the final three games of the season in four of the past six years. The two times they didn't finish 2-1, they went 3-0, including last year when they outscored district opponents 158-42.

In order to keep the trend going, Lisher said his team needed to deliver more of what it showed last week in a 32-0 victory over previously unbeaten Shawnee Mission West.

"For us to finally step up and play the way we did was a welcome sight and a welcome relief for everybody," Lisher said. "Obviously that built a little confidence because the kids know what they're capable of, but we have to put that to bed. The focus this week is on improving from last week and getting ready for Topeka High."

The Trojans return a handful of starters from 2006, including tailback John Babb.

During last year's 62-27 blowout, Babb was one of the few Trojans to enjoy success against the Firebirds, and Lisher is expecting Babb and his running mates to be ready for this year's contest.

"There's experience there, and that experience, if it gets hot, can be very, very tough to stop," Lisher said. "They look awfully good in their uniforms. They're big, strong, fast kids."

Fortunately for Free State, so are the Firebirds. Quarterback Craig Rosenstengle and tailback Chucky Hunter are among the Sunflower League leaders in total offense, and both figure to give the Firebirds enough firepower to rise to this week's challenge.

In addition to an increase in intensity and focus, Free State junior Graham Saunders said the excitement level goes up, as well, when district rolls around.

"It's really just like starting the season all over again," said Saunders, who played three quarters in last year's contest with Topeka High and now starts on both the offensive and defensive lines. "It's a really important game because it gives you a chance to get some momentum going for the rest of district."

With the added importance comes a little added pressure, but Lisher said his team had a good week of practice.

"Everybody understands that they have a chance to step up and make the playoffs, so the focus becomes better week in and week out in district play," Lisher said. "Especially in that first game because everybody wants that so they don't have to win the next two. They want that first one to get some momentum going for the next two."

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