Although the Lawrence High football team was eliminated from the Class 6A state playoffs two weeks ago, Lions coach Dirk Wedd maintains an interest in Friday’s semifinal matchup between Free State (8-3) and Blue Valley (10-1).
For starters, Wedd knows both coaches quite well and has spent many years talking X’s and O’s with the Firebirds’ Bob Lisher and Blue Valley’s Steve Rampy.
In addition to the coaching connection, Wedd’s LHS team played both squads during the 2008 season, losing to the Firebirds, 21-13, in Week 8 and falling to the Tigers, 42-23, in Round 1 of the playoffs.
Armed with that knowledge and thrust into the role of unbiased analyst, Wedd offered up his thoughts for how Friday’s contest might play out.
“Sometimes, I think you have to look at who the hottest team is,” Wedd said. “And between these two teams, that’s Free State. I think they’re playing the best football between the two schools and maybe the best football of anybody in the state.”
For starters, the Firebirds knocked off a 7-3 Shawnee Mission Northwest squad in Round 1. They followed that up with a 10-6 victory over 8-2 Olathe North last Friday night. Both victories avenged regular-season losses, and both left Wedd shaking his head about the Firebirds’ potential.
“The 90-yard drive to win the game against Olathe North was maybe the greatest job of punching somebody in the mouth at the end of a game as I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Wedd said. “Ten years from now, they’ll still be saying, ‘That was the drive.’”
That game-winning march into a stiff wind and falling sleet featured two of the three things about the Firebirds that had Wedd leaning their way in the matchup.
First off, every yard the Firebirds gained on that drive came from the legs of senior tailback Chucky Hunter and junior quarterback Camren Torneden.
“Blue Valley has not seen two backs like Chucky and Camren,” Wedd said. “Chucky, in the last four or five games, has gone from being a dancer to a flat-out, north-and-south runner. And then he’s still got some elusiveness. And Camren might be the best football player in the state of Kansas. What he has over Chucky is unadulterated speed.
“It takes a quarter for you to realize the speed and quickness of those two.”
Of course, had it not been for the linemen in front of them, Hunter and Torneden might not have been able to gain those yards. Wedd, a former lineman himself, said Free State’s offensive line has the make-up of a group that will go down in history as one of the best.
“You can say all you want about the two backs,” Wedd said. “But, with seven minutes to go and the game on the line, that offensive line took it upon themselves to march the team down the field.”
The third element that Wedd says makes Free State so dangerous is the impressive play of the team’s defense in the past few weeks. After falling to SMNW and O-North by a combined score of 69-34 in the regular season, the Firebirds flipped the script and outscored the Cougars and Eagles a combined 51-27 in back-to-back playoff victories.
“I think what jumps out at you about their defense is that they’re just unbelievable tacklers,” Wedd said. “They don’t miss tackles and they bring people to the ground.”
Doing both likely will be key to stopping Blue Valley’s high-powered passing attack, which Wedd says has potential to give Free State problems.
“You can talk about the spread offense or whatever,” he said. “But in the Sunflower League, we don’t see it. We don’t see five wides and empty backfields. And, if we do, it might be for a snap or two or even a series. But we don’t see it from the opening gun to last snap.
“Blue Valley’s not going to get into a macho game, they’re not going to try to punch you in the mouth. They’ll spread you out and try to throw all day.”
Wedd plans to be in the stands at Blue Valley High on Friday night, just as he was last week when the Firebirds knocked off O-North.
“Those are still Lawrence kids,” he said. “Heck, I coached some of their dads.”