Players have come and players have gone, but most of the coaches have stuck around.
Some athletes, such as Free State High’s Ryan Murphy (Class of 2007) and Lawrence High’s Clint Pinnick (Class of ’09), have started multiple games in the famed City Showdown between Lawrence’s two Class 6A football programs.
Others — underachievers, one-hit-wonders and all-world reserves alike — received just one shot at making a difference in the memorable game. Some succeeded. Others didn’t.
The LHS-Free State football rivalry has seen just about everything during its 12-year history, which dates back to 1997 and will resume at 7 p.m. Friday at FSHS.
“We’ve had favorites win, and we’ve had underdogs win,” said Free State coach Bob Lisher, whose 5-2 Firebirds on Friday will be seeking their fourth straight victory in the series. “When you get in these types of emotional football games, you never know who’s going to come out on top. And I’ve been on both sides.”
So, too, has LHS coach Dirk Wedd and most of his staff. Earlier this week, several coaches from both sides of 15th Street shared the best memories they’ve filed away from the annual showdown.
“The 1999 game always stands out because that was our first victory in the series,” Lisher said. “We were the favorites in that one, and (LHS) took us to overtime, and we won it with a field goal.”
A year later, Wedd got revenge, this time as the Lions’ head coach.
“I think 2000 was one of the most memorable games for me,” Wedd said. “It was the first win I had as a head coach in the series. We had a very special senior class that year. As sophomores, they didn’t have enough players to field a sophomore team, and by their senior year they were a pretty good football team.”
That victory, a 35-0 pasting by the Lions — one of three shutouts in series history — gave Lawrence High a 3-1 advantage in the infant stages of the showdown. LHS built its lead to 6-3 with a victory in 2005, but has not won since. Thanks to Free State’s three straight victories, the schools are tied at six victories apiece, making Friday’s clash a rubber match of sorts. For now, anyway.
For members of both staffs, the 2001 game stands out as one of the most memorable. In that one, the Firebirds entered the game with a 1-6 record but found a way to blank the Lions, 16-0.
“It’s an emotional game, and sometimes you just play over your heads,” said Lisher, explaining how the upset happened. “If you get all 11 people doing what they’re supposed to do and doing it well for one night, you can do it.”
Added Free State assistant Brett Romme, who played on the last LHS team to win a state title in 1995: “That was kind of the reverse of this year a little bit, and we ended up pulling it out. In that situation, you pretty much have to play perfect to win, and we were close to it that night.”
Lawrence High assistant coach Chris Johnson (Class of ’02) was a senior on that LHS team. He lists the 2001 game as one of his most memorable moments if for no other reason than the pain and agony that came with the loss.
“We played it at KU, so that was pretty cool,” Johnson said. “It’s really fun playing people on the other side who you grew up with. The thing that’s the worst is, even now, you get together with your buddies, and you still talk about it.”
Johnson has done more than his share of talk about it this week. In addition to preparing the Lions (0-7) for Friday, he also has had to fend off taunts from pro-Free State eighth- and ninth-graders at West Junior High, where he teaches social studies.
“All my kids know I coach at Lawrence High, and they write, ‘Go Free State’ on my board and stuff like that,” Johnson said. “So they know about the rivalry, and it’s fun for them, too. It’s fun for me, as a coach, looking back. But it’s hard for these kids to understand right now the things they will remember about it down the road.”
Whether they’ve played in it, coached in it or just been introduced to it, this rivalry is as meaningful to the coaches as it is the players.
“Being from a small town, it’s other towns who are our rivals, it’s not a same-town rivalry. That’s the main difference,” Free State assistant Adam Barmann said. “But once you’re involved with it, it’s great. I love it. All I have to go by is last year, but it’s a highly emotional game. All rivalry games are. That’s what makes them great. And that’s what I remember, just how excited the kids were.”