Firebirds make first play for title

City hasn’t had state champ since ‘The Split’

Free State High School cheerleader Paige Lindsay, left, and Free State teacher Chris Hunt create a spirit banner earlier this week in a hallway at the school. The Firebirds will play Junction City on Saturday for the 6A state football championship.

Forgive Virginia Hazlett Fleener for being off her game.

The Lawrence native found herself on uncharted ground earlier this week, scanning the campus at Free State High School for the city’s Indoor Aquatic Center — something new since she’d moved to Southern California decades ago.

Also unfamiliar: Free State’s Firebirds preparing to play in this weekend’s state championship football game, instead of her beloved Lawrence Lions.

“Back then we were the only school,” said Fleener, who attended Liberty Memorial High School in 1940-44, years before the current Lawrence High opened at 19th and Louisiana streets. “We had all the good players. …

“It was a different time.”

When the Firebirds take the field against Junction City — at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Yager Stadium in Topeka — it will mark Free State’s first chance to play for a title that, before the Firebirds came along, had been something of a Lawrence High tradition.

“It’s awesome,” said Becky Torneden Johnson, an LHS alumna whose son, Camren, starts at quarterback for the Firebirds. “It’s kind of hard wearing the green, after wearing black and red all my life. … but I’m proud of the school. It’s a phenomenal situation that another school in Lawrence can be just as deserving as Lawrence High.”

The Lions, of course, own 10 6A state championships and at least a dozen more if you include earlier titles bestowed by sportswriters’ polls. Then there’s the 31 undefeated seasons, and the thousands of LHS alumni — Johnson included — who have graduated knowing little else than winning, winning and more winning.

Now it’s Free State’s turn, making a play for the city’s first football title since “The Split.” That’s back when the second high school opened in 1997, three years after a bond issue passed despite lingering fears that the community’s identity — some called it “football supremacy” — would be irrevocably diluted.

“This is great for Lawrence,” said Aaron Siebenthall, who played receiver at Lawrence High through 1993, when the Lions won the last of five consecutive state football titles. “I’m a Lawrence person. I want Lawrence kids to be successful.”

Siebenthall still cherishes the Lions tradition, and one of his reports in college, “The History of Lawrence High Football,” remains on file at Spencer Research Library. But even he acknowledges the benefits of having two schools striving for excellence.

More students get to play. A friendly rivalry can develop. People with red-and-black in their pasts can build futures with memories and experiences colored by green and silver.

“I mean, Bob Lisher, a Lawrence High alum, he was my defensive coordinator when I played,” Siebenthall said, of the Firebirds’ first and only head coach. “It’s just a big cycle. Instead of having one really big, really good team, now we’ve got two not-as-big, pretty good teams.”

Devyn Quarterman understands the perspective. She’s a senior at Free State and, as a cheerleader, is busy preparing banners and signs and other emblems of support for her classmates.

Among them is a banner: MAKING HISTORY, painted in 3-foot-tall white letters, with FIREBIRDS FOOTBALL to the side on green paper.

“We’re, like, the newbie school,” she said earlier this week, carefully adding names — Chucky, Camren, Jack and other pioneering players — to her oversized pep poster. “This is our chance to prove our worthiness to Lawrence High, and we can represent ourselves and Lawrence in a way that’s good for both schools.”

She smiles.

“It’ll show that Lawrence is a force to be reckoned with.”

Once again.