Archive for Thursday, October 25, 2007

Opposites attack

Sibling linebackers anchor stingy defense

Brothers and Free State high starting linebackers Ryder Werts, left, and Mitch Werts (14) have made a big impact on the FSHS defense this season. The Firebirds (6-2) currently rank third in the Sunflower League in total defense and have recorded three shutouts along the way.

Brothers and Free State high starting linebackers Ryder Werts, left, and Mitch Werts (14) have made a big impact on the FSHS defense this season. The Firebirds (6-2) currently rank third in the Sunflower League in total defense and have recorded three shutouts along the way.

October 25, 2007


One is a 5-foot-10, 220-pound senior, a rock of a player who looks every bit like Johnny Linebacker from one of those classic Hollywood football movies.

The other is a 5-9, 170-pound junior, a student of the game, far less boisterous than his older brother on the opposite side of the field.

But together, Ryder and Mitch Werts have combined to help anchor a Free State High defense that is third in total defense in the Sunflower League and has logged three shutouts in eight games.

Although they line up in different spots on the field and play with distinctly different styles, football is about the only thing the Werts brothers have in common.

Ryder drives a yellow Mustang; Mitch drives a black Jeep Cherokee. Ryder keeps his hair short, a military cut. Mitch favors long, flowing locks. Mitch kills time with video games and rap music. Ryder stays away from both. He prefers country to hip hop and can't stay far enough away from Xbox and PlayStation.

"We're different people," Ryder said. "We hang out with different people. We like to do different things. But when it comes to football, we both love to play."

That much is obvious. But it hasn't always been. After starting their football careers with the Cougars as Pinckney Elementary School third- and fourth-graders, Mitch and Ryder went separate directions.

Ryder continued to play football. He ate, drank and slept the game and crafted himself into the monster of a player he is today. Mitch chose baseball over football, returning to the gridiron as a ninth-grader at West Junior High.

That's what makes their shared success so enjoyable.

"Of course, the team doing so well makes it better," Mitch said. "But the fact that we're out there starting together on the same team is just a real special feeling."

In many ways, it's remarkable.

Ryder, an inside linebacker who started on last year's 11-1 team, entered his senior season with high expectations and has lived up to them. Mitch, a junior outside linebacker who spent all of last season playing solely on offense, came in as a question mark.

"If you would have asked me last year if Mitch would be starting at this time this year, I'd have said 'No way,'" Ryder said. "But he's done a great job and it's just awesome being out there with him. We haven't played together since (Lawrence Youth Football). This is the first time, and it's great."

Great for the siblings and the Firebirds' defense.

Ryder is having an all-state type of season. He's Free State's leading tackler, one of the team's emotional leaders and the kind of player who knows just one way to play - all out.

Mitch's season has followed a more subtle progression, taking him from the bench in Week One to a starting spot by midseason and now a starring role alongside his brother. Free State defensive coordinator Brett Oberzan said Ryder had a lot to do with Mitch's improvement.

"They are different, but Mitch is starting to play a lot more like Ryder these days," Oberzan said. "He's been a lot more aggressive the last couple of weeks and that's been great for our defense. It's addicting, watching a player like Ryder play. The guys see someone like that, who plays so hard all the time, and they want to play like that, too."

While Mitch's increased aggression has made the Firebirds' defense better, it is what he and his brother do differently that makes them such valuable assets, according to head coach Bob Lisher. Mitch is a quicker, faster player, who uses his speed and smarts to make plays. Ryder uses adrenaline and emotion, power and will to create stops even when nothing is there.

"Ryder's a little more outgoing and you don't really hear Mitch say too much," Lisher said. "But I think it's kind of always been that way. Ryder's not going to run around anyone, he's going to run through them on both sides of the ball. Mitch is more of a technique guy. He does what's he's supposed to do and knows his assignments at all times. Ryder's just a bull."

Mitch makes interceptions. He currently ranks 11th in the Sunflower League in that category and shares the team lead. Ryder's a tackling machine, ranking near the top of the league in three major categories - solo tackles, assists and tackles for losses.

While the numbers are something concrete for the two to look at, statistics and recognition don't mean as much to these guys as the thrill of playing together and watching each other succeed.

During the Firebirds' district-opening victory over Topeka High two weeks ago, Mitch came up with two interceptions and jump-started a sluggish Free State offense. After each pick, Ryder raced from his spot on the field into his brother's face to share the moment, screaming, jumping, displaying fits of raw emotion.

"I think he gets more excited when I make a play than I do," Mitch said.

One week later, during Free State's 27-0 victory over Lawrence High, Mitch returned the favor.

After Ryder's 65-yard touchdown reception in the final minute of the first half made the score 20-0, Mitch was seen jumping like a madman on the sideline, celebrating as his brother bowled over two tacklers on his way to the end zone. During the team's film session the following day, several teammates commented about how wild Mitch looked as he celebrated his brother's first career touchdown reception.

"They're very close and they cheer for each other like crazy," said Lisher, noting that he's never seen a case of sibling rivalry overcome the Werts brothers. "They care a great deal for each other and that's very obvious in the way they play."


Crossfire 10 years ago

Ryder & Mitch... Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels. CC Ryder... Hollywood Joe Namath. I think these boys were destined to play.

Nikki May 10 years ago

I remember these guys as preschoolers.

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