Just out of reach: Upset win eludes Free State football in 20-16 heartbreaker in 6A playoffs

Free State's Tucker Fritzel (9) knocks down a pass intended for Olathe East's Brent Guiser (18).

? One team always goes home unhappy. It’s one of the fundamental laws of competitive sports.

And though Free State High’s football team appeared on the cusp of an impressive upset victory, FSHS was the team whose season came to an end in heartbreaking fashion on Friday night.

Despite dominating the first half, the Firebirds fell, 20-16, to top-seeded Olathe East, who rattled off 20 unanswered second-half points in a Class 6A playoff game at the College Boulevard Activity Center.

“I’m so proud of these guys for what they’ve accomplished and how hard they played tonight,” FSHS coach Bob Lisher said. “I think we gave them everything they wanted, and then some, but came up just short.”

“It’s hard to accept this when you play that hard and play that well.”

It was equally tough to digest for the Firebirds, who jogged off the field at halftime with a 16-0 lead after a nearly flawless first half.

“It’s terrible,” senior offensive guard/nose tackle Justin McCandless said.

Behind a smothering defense and a relentless running game, the Firebirds owned the first 24 minutes.

The first four Hawks drives resulted in three-and-outs, and they didn’t make a first down until halfway through the second quarter.

Free State’s defensive line — Cody Stanclift, McCandless and Cale Nieder — won its battles, allowing linebackers Matt Cole and Nate Davis to smother would-be ball carriers in the backfield.

O-East senior Brandon Willingham — the Sunflower League’s leading rusher — struggled to find running room in the face of the oppressive Free State defense. He was held to 24 yards on 13 carries in the half with no run longer than six yards.

For the half, the Firebirds limited the Hawks to only 26 yards rushing on 17 carries and two total first downs.

The Firebird offense, a unit that struggled mightily in the first meeting against the top-ranked Hawks defense, ran right at them Friday, and ran it well.

Often working behind McCandless and right tackle Jimmy Fernandez, seniors Dylan Perry and Preston Schenck had plenty of space to operate.

Perry scored on runs of five and four yards, Schenck rushed for 64 yards, and sophomore Antonio Schoneich hit a 30-yard field goal to lead the Firebirds into the half in front of a stunned crowd of Hawk supporters.

After the break, though, momentum quickly swung the Hawks’ way.

O-East forced a Firebirds three-and-out, and on the next play, Willingham took the handoff 59 yards for a touchdown.

The Firebirds hung tough, including a goal-line stand on the Hawks’ next drive, but couldn’t get much going on offense.

On a crucial fourth-and-one, Perry kept the ball and dove past the marker — only he fumbled. The Hawks recovered.

Four plays later, Willingham broke through the pile and sprinted 53 yards for another touchdown.

FSHS junior Shawn Knighton coughed the ball up on the ensuing kickoff, and the Hawks again recovered inside the 20. Willingham — he finished with 186 yards on the ground, 162 in the second half — later punched it in from four yards out.

“We were confident,” McCandless said. “We played a great first half, stopped them on defense and were making plays on offense. We just didn’t come out in the second half and get it done.”

The Firebirds had a shot to regain the lead with just over one minute remaining, but Drew McCullough picked off Perry.

Two kneel-downs later, the Hawks bounded off the field in celebration.

“It was tough the whole second half,” said Perry, who finished 9-for-19 for 129 yards with two interceptions and 14 carries for 77 yards. “We had a chance. We just didn’t finish up.”

The Firebirds, reeling after the loss, huddled on the field while Lisher congratulated them on a great season.

The 17 Firebird seniors then lingered a bit longer, consoling one another, still trying to find the words to explain what just happened.

“It’s just sad that I’m not going to get to play with these guys again,” an emotional Perry said.

“(It’s) one of my favorite senior groups of all-time,” Lisher said. “It’s just hard to see it end like that.”