High School Spodcasters
Junction City 19, Free State 14
Join Matt Tait and DJ Whetter as they put the final touches on Saturday's Class 6A state title game, which the Free State High football team lost, 19-14, to Junction City in Topeka. Free State finished the season with a 9-4 record and made a legitimate case to be included in the debate about the best FSHS football team of all-time.
Topeka The stage was set. The ball was in Free State High’s hands. But this time, the Firebirds could not finish.
Saturday afternoon at Washburn University’s Yager Stadium, the Free State football team lost the Class 6A state championship game, 19-14, to Junction City.
Unlike during the previous two rounds, when the Firebirds delivered big-time, game-winning drives late to advance in the playoffs, Free State was stopped cold this time, failing to get so much as a first down on its final offensive drive of the season.
Free State took over at its own 32-yard line with 9:12 to play. Considering that the team’s two game-winning, postseason drives took about that amount of time, it was not a surprise to see the Firebirds take the field with great confidence.
“We felt comfortable going out there,” FSHS coach Bob Lisher said. “We knew we could go down, burn the clock up, take care of business and get it done.”
But it never happened.
After senior tailback Chucky Hunter gained five yards on first down, the Firebirds were hit with a holding penalty on second down, creating a second-and-13 situation. On the next play, junior quarterback Camren Torneden went deep for Preston Randolph, who was nudged off of his route by a Junction City defender, and the ball fell incomplete. On third-and-13, Torneden’s pass was batted down by Junction City’s Bradley Dill.
That prompted Lisher to send punter Kirk Resseguie back onto the field and spelled the end of the season for the Free State offense.
After taking over at its own 27-yard line with 8:00 to play, Junction City picked up five first downs and ran all eight minutes off of the clock.
“That last quarter, that last eight minutes, they did what we usually do, drain the time and pound the ball,” Torneden said. “It’s kind of frustrating, but things happen. Sometimes you get the shorter end, sometimes you get the win.”
Saturday, Free State probably deserved both.
The Firebirds fumbled three times in the first half — losing one — and, after marching down the field on the opening drive of the game, struggled to move the ball during the final 20 minutes of the half.
While the offense stalled, the FSHS defense stepped up.
Most of the first half amounted to nothing more than a field-position battle, as the Firebirds and Blue Jays traded punts and defensive stops.
Junction City’s third punt pinned the Free State offense deep in its own end, with a first-and-10 at the two-yard line with 4:00 to play in the half.
That’s when the tide turned.
On the first play of the drive, Hunter fumbled as he hurdled a pile of linemen, and Junction City recovered at the Free State four-yard line. Two plays later, JCHS quarterback Ty Zimmerman scored on a one-yard run to make it 7-0 Blue Jays.
“That hurt us a lot, obviously,” Torneden said. “We lost by five points. We lost probably by that touchdown. That touchdown changed the game. But it’s nobody’s fault. We can’t blame each other. We just have to move on. ”
Free State did a great job of regrouping, thanks in large part to the arrival of halftime four minutes after the critical mistake.
Junction City opened the second half with possession, but as the FSHS fans roared behind them, the Firebirds forced a Junction City fumble on the third play of the half, and junior lineman Matt Ruder recovered.
Given its first short field of the game, Free State capitalized when Torneden found Randolph for a 14-yard TD pass to tie the game.
Junction City fired right back on its next possession, scoring in four plays to take a 13-7 lead. The extra point attempt missed wide left, though, leaving a crack in the door for the Firebirds.
Free State plowed through that opening on its next drive, scoring on a one-yard TD run by Hunter to cap a 13-play, 61-yard drive. Gabe Ballard-Hansen’s extra point gave the Firebirds a 14-13 lead and, all of a sudden, a defensive grinder had become a wide-open offensive showcase.
The Blue Jays continued that trend on their next drive when Zimmerman found Connor Gallentine for an 18-yard touchdown, marking the second time in the half the big tight end crept behind the FSHS defense for a touchdown.
“That was something we didn’t expect,” Free State’s Taylor Stuart said. “Props to them. That was a good play call. We weren’t prepared for it.”
Leading 19-14, Junction City elected to try for two but failed when Zimmerman’s pass fell incomplete. That set the table for Free State’s final offensive drive and proved to be the game-winner.
“They’re very disappointed, as we all are, that we couldn’t win the state championship for our school and for our town,” Lisher said. “But to get here, to play the way they played the last six weeks, to play the way they played tonight, was outstanding. Junction City’s 13-0 for a reason. They made a few plays when they had to. We did, too. We came back and got the lead, but then fell behind again and just didn’t have enough time to get back on top.”
The Firebirds finished the season with a 9-4 record.