Same time, same place, same stakes.
If the Free State High football team’s season-long quest to get back to the Class 6A state title game is to come true, the Firebirds are going to have to draw on a rather large part of last year’s run to get them there.
Just as they did in 2008, the Firebirds will travel to Olathe at 7 tonight to take on the Olathe North Eagles in a quarterfinal contest at Olathe District Activity Center.
In many ways, tonight’s matchup is incredibly similar to last season. The Firebirds (8-2) enter the game as the definite underdog, having lost twice, including a 38-20 setback to Olathe North (10-0) in Week 6.
Of course, last year the Firebirds were in the same position, having lost to the Eagles, 35-7, during the regular season and exacting revenge, 10-6, in the postseason.
“It’s kind of eerie,” FSHS coach Bob Lisher said. “Because of the fact that we had to beat a team that beat us earlier in the year in the first round (Olathe East, 34-7) and now we’re going on the road to take on Olathe North again. In many ways, it’s just like last year. It’s the same four teams on this side of the state (with Blue Valley and Blue Valley Northwest playing in the other eastern quarterfinal).”
The Firebirds are hoping that the feeling of deja vu lasts at least another week. But they know that in order for it to happen they’ll have to play their best game of the year.
“It’s going to be a real emotional game,” Free State lineman Michael Lisher said. “Both teams are going to come out ready to go and it’s going to come down to who executes.”
In the first meeting, that team was the Eagles. Olathe North racked up 456 yards on the ground, 296 of those coming from senior tailback James Franklin.
On the flip side, the Firebirds’ high-octane attack was limited to just 50 yards on the ground and held below 200 yards of total offense for the night.
“We didn’t tackle well at all in that one,” Michael Lisher said. “That cost us four or five yards (per carry) and a couple of touchdowns. We know that a big key to tonight is to contain Franklin better than we did. If we can cut that number in half and step up on offense, we’ll have a shot.”
Franklin leads the Sunflower League in rushing (2,074 yards) and touchdowns (26). He did the same a season ago, but the Firebirds were one of the few teams that found a way to stop him. In last year’s quarterfinal matchup, Free State held Franklin to 90 yards on 25 carries.
“I think our defense just came together when it mattered,” Michael Lisher said. “Now we have to do it again.”
Added Bob Lisher: “James Franklin is a lot better running back this year than he was last year, and he was great last year. But we didn’t change anything defensively last year from the first game. We just went in and played best defensive game of the year in that one. Not because we did anything different, but because we came out and played with great effort. That’s the goal this year. Our guys have been there. They know what it’s going to take.”
Free State counters with its own productive offense, led by senior quarterback Camren Torneden. Torneden has compiled 1,935 yards of total offense (1,096 passing and 839 rushing) and thrown eight TD passes. He also has rushed for 14 touchdowns and scored three more on punt returns (68, 57 and 71 yards).
One of the problems in the first meeting was the fact that the Free State offense could not stay on the field. While some of that was because of the Firebirds’ inability to move the ball, another part of it was when they did move the ball, they moved it too fast.
“Our three touchdown drives were all less than 2 minutes,” Bob Lisher said. “Of course we had a lot of three-and-outs, too. But we have to find a way to control the ball a little better and keep them off the field.”
Free State will lean on tailback Kirk Resseguie — 1,099 yards and 16 TDs — for some of that. Resseguie suffered a knee injury in last week’s victory but is expected to play tonight.
The bottom line: These two teams know each other well. And thanks to last year’s postseason clash, they now have some history.
Fortunately for the Firebirds, though, when they enter tonight’s showdown they’ll have a sense of belonging.
“It’s kind of like the difference between a first date and a second date,” Bob Lisher said. “You’re a little more comfortable on that second date. Everybody understands that Olathe North is going to be the favorite. But they were the favorite last year. It’s not like we have to beat them 10 times. We just have to beat them one time.”