There’s a long list of things the members of the Free State High football team are thankful for this Thanksgiving.
And one of them is that, on a day reserved for elastic waist bands, second helpings and John Madden on television, the Firebirds will be practicing.
“Practicing on Thanksgiving Day was not something that ever crossed my mind,” senior linebacker Mitch Werts said. “But now that it’s here, I’m definitely glad that we are.”
So, too, is Free State coach Bob Lisher, who has waited 15 years to return to the state championship game. Lisher, the only coach FSHS has ever known, will lead the Firebirds onto the field for their first state title appearance at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
The last time Lisher coached a team on the final Saturday of the season was in 1993, when he was the defensive coordinator at Lawrence High.
It’s because of that lengthy wait that Lisher did not think twice about asking his team to suit up today.
“We’ll practice (in the) morning, and then we’ll eat afterwards,” said a smiling Lisher, who will run the holiday practice from 9:30-11:30 a.m. in preparation for Saturday’s Class 6A state title game in Topeka.
Asked if he was concerned that his guys might stuff themselves with too much turkey, Lisher said the only thing on his mind this afternoon would be filling up his plate.
“I will,” he said of digging in. “I don’t know about those guys.”
All kidding aside, the Firebirds have plenty to be thankful for this season. In addition to breaking through and becoming the first team in school history to reach the title game, Free State has taken its supporters on a wild ride. From a start that had many questioning what happened to the team’s potential, to a playoff run that has people calling this team the hottest in Kansas, the 2008 Firebirds certainly have reserved their spot in the history books.
Of course, none of it — the rough start, the coming together, the playoff run — would have been possible without a little luck and a lot of hard work. That provides two more reasons for the Firebirds to be thankful this Turkey Day.
“I’m just really that our coaching staff is so devoted,” senior nose guard Jack Caywood said. “On Saturdays, they’re there like all day, watching film and getting ready for the next week.”
That’s where the hard work has come in. Even as recently as last Saturday, a day that most would have forgiven Lisher and his staff for sleeping a little later and enjoying Friday’s semifinal victory for a few hours longer, the FSHS coaches were in the office bright and early breaking down film of the Blue Valley semifinal game.
The luck part of the equation has come from the simple fact that, for the most part, the Firebirds have been able to avoid the injury bug.
“It’s been amazing to be able to keep everyone healthy,” Caywood said. “Chucky (Hunter) had an ankle injury earlier in the season, but that wasn’t too bad. It’s been a great thing to be able to have our whole team healthy all year.”
The chemistry that developed over time led to the team’s magical run. Instead of adjusting to new players or new positions each week, the Firebirds were able to settle in early, allowing them to focus on their indvidual responsibilities.
From that attitude, the team’s relentless work ethic took shape, and, as the weeks moved on, the Firebirds became a team full of players willing to put in extra work to improve.
Add that to the list of reasons they’re thankful.
“I just really appreciate that all of my teammates have come out every day and worked their hardest,” Werts said. “It’s just been amazing.”