Saturday evening, the Free State High Firebirds were handed one of the toughest losses any of them ever had been dealt on the gridiron, a 19-14 setback to Junction City in the Class 6A state title game.
After the loss, tears flowed openly, regrets ran rampant, and questions of “What if” filled the minds of many of the Firebirds.
Sunday morning was a different story.
When Free State senior running back Chucky Hunter woke up the morning after the biggest game of his life, the first thought that went through his mind was one of pride.
“We played a good game,” Hunter said. “We gave it all we had. There were just too many turnovers on my behalf, and we just made too many mistakes on both sides of the ball, mistakes we didn’t make during our other games this postseason.”
The turnovers Hunter spoke of came on back-to-back offensive snaps during the game-changing second quarter. With Free State and Junction City gridlocked in a defensive showdown, Hunter fumbled on a first-down run from the Firebirds’ two-yard line. That set up Junction City’s first touchdown and gave the Blue Jays a 7-0 lead.
Down but certainly not out, the Free State offense took the field again with 3:14 to play in the first half, looking to drive 68 yards to tie the game. But on first down, a called halfback pass — thrown by Hunter — intended for quarterback Camren Torneden was intercepted.
Those were the types of mistakes Hunter talked about. Those were the types of play calls that might have been second-guessed. But after drying out, warming up and letting all that they had accomplished sink in, the Firebirds (9-4) were happy to focus on all of the positive elements of Saturday’s game.
“We’re second place in the state, and that’s the best a Free State team has ever done. So we have to be proud of what we’ve done,” senior Taylor Stuart said. “Obviously, I wish things would’ve come out a lot better. But we played our butts off, and we accomplished something that no other Free State team had done. So we have to be proud of that. But, of course, I wish we would’ve ended this with a victory.”
Added Hunter: “It feels good to be the team that got there the first time,” he said of playing in the program’s first Class 6A state title game. “We’re all from different junior highs in Lawrence, and, at summer weights when we were sophomores, we all came in and said we wanted to win a state title as seniors. We almost got it done. This whole run was a dream come true.”
Free State coach Bob Lisher, who coached in his ninth state-championship game — first as a head coach — on Saturday, agreed with Hunter’s assessment and said the outcome of the game did not change how he felt about his bunch.
“There were a lot of plays in the game where you could go back and say, ‘What if,’” Lisher said. “But (Junction City) came out on top, 19-14. As a coach, all you can ask for is your guys to come out and play hard and play well, and they did. I’m extremely proud of this team.”