Olathe — The fourth playoff victory in Free State High football history did not come without a price Friday night.
As the Firebirds headed for the buses with their second trophy of the postseason in hand, one member of the team limped off slowly - head coach Bob Lisher.
"I hurt my hammy in the celebration," Lisher said after his team's 10-6 victory over Olathe North in the Class 6A state quarterfinals.
The way his defense played, Lisher was lucky not to be injured by his own team. From start to finish, the Free State defense stood up to every challenge thrown its way and dominated the line of scrimmage en route to what Lisher called one of the biggest victories in school history.
"We've had some great games in the past," Lisher said. "And this is just another one to add to it, but this one was pretty special."
From linebackers Taylor Stuart, Joe Riordan, Mitch Werts, Keene Niemack and Eric Franz to defensive backs Camren Torneden, Preston Randolph and Cameron Schmidt, as well as linemen Grahm Saunders, Matt Ruder and Jack Caywood, every Free State defender who took the field brought the kind of energy that makes games special.
In the first meeting between these two teams, O-North tailback James Franklin rushed 28 times for 179 yards and three touchdowns. Friday, Franklin carried the ball nearly as many times (25), but gained half as many yards (90), as the Firebirds stacked the line and sent waves of tacklers to the shifty runner.
But it was not just that the Firebirds were able to bottle up Franklin and the rest of the Olathe North attack - the Eagles gained just 197 total yards - as it was the way they did it. Every tackle was packed with passion, every stop saturated with substance, and every ounce of energy the defense had was left on the field.
"Our defense played outstanding," Lisher said. "It was the best defensive game we've played in a long time here."
While the Free State run defense highlighted the night, its pass defense might have won the game. Olathe North quarterback David Blazevic was just 2-for-6 through the air for 17 yards, including one interception that might have been the play of the game. With O-North trailing 3-0 at halftime, the Eagles opened the second half with an impressive drive. After gaining just two first downs during the first half, the Eagles picked up two first downs on the first two plays of the second half and appeared to be headed for a touchdown and control of the game.
But on third-and-five from the Free State 19-yard line, senior Cameron Schmidt intercepted a Blazevic pass in the end zone. It was at that point that the Free State sideline truly began to believe it would win.
"We've been working on man defense all week and it really helps when you have guys like we do who can test us during practice," Schmidt said. "This feels amazing. If you would have told me in the summer that this would happen, I never would've thought it. It's amazing."
It almost didn't. Despite playing near perfect throughout the night, the Firebirds found themselves trailing 6-3 with 11:56 to play. That's when the offense came to life.
With the wind roaring into the face of the Free State offense and small slivers of sleet falling to the ground, the Firebirds moved with authority. First Torneden ran for six yards, then Hunter for five. Hunter for six on the next play and Hunter for 16 more two plays later. When all was said and done, Free State had marched 90 yards in 14 plays to regain the lead and take back control of the game. The final blow came when Torneden darted into the end zone from eight yards out for the Firebirds' only TD of the night.
"That was all the line, all the line," Torneden said. "I just hit the hole."
From there, it was up to the Firebirds' defense one more time. With 6:43 to play in the game, Olathe North took over for one final drive. But after picking up three first downs and 41 yards, the Eagles stalled at the FSHS 20-yard line when Blazevic's fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
As far as Lisher was concerned, it was only fitting that his defense was on the field when the game was on the line.
"Absolutely. Those guys played their hearts out," Lisher said. "They had pride in what they did tonight and they did a great job. I'm extremely proud of them."
Free State's offense was not much better than the Eagles on Friday. The Firebirds finished with 200 total yards and Hunter led all Firebirds with 98 yards on 20 carries. But it was not statistics that mattered in this one. It was simply a matter of will.
"We knew we could play with them, we just played tougher than them," Hunter said.
The victory moves FSHS into the Class 6A state semifinals for the second time in school history. Free State also advanced to the final four in 2006.
The Firebirds (8-3) will take on Blue Valley (10-1) in the semis at 7 p.m. Friday at Blue Valley High.
The Tigers knocked off Blue Valley Northwest, 24-20, on Friday on a fumble recovery in the end zone after a completion on fourth-and-19 with six seconds remaining.
Blue Valley will host the game because it is the higher seed.
When asked how he could get his team to respond to Friday's emotional win in time for next week's showdown, Lisher spoke with the kind of conviction of a man on a mission.
"Very easily," he said. "Our guys are hungry. They wanted this one so we could get to the next one."