Free State High senior Tucker Fritzel described the week leading up to the annual homecoming game as “one big event.” And with a bonfire and this afternoon’s parade among the list of activities, it’s easy to see why.
Despite all the buzz surrounding homecoming, coach Bob Lisher had a message for his Firebird football team: Don’t forget about the task at hand.
“They’re nice distractions, but we can’t let them affect us during the game,” Lisher said. “We need to focus in on the game, come out with a lot of energy and play well at the start, but then we have to carry that for the rest of the game.”
Heading into tonight’s homecoming game at 7 against Shawnee Mission East (3-1), it appears as if Free State (3-1) has heeded Lisher’s advice.
“Coach has been talking to us about how we need to avoid distractions this week,” senior offensive/defensive lineman Justin McCandless said. “He wants us to enjoy homecoming week and all the stuff that goes along with it, but when we’re out here, it’s all about business.”
Lisher’s message came on the heels of Free State’s 46-7 drubbing of Shawnee Mission North last week, during which the Firebirds spoiled the Indians’ homecoming celebration.
The Lancers undoubtedly will be looking to play that same role of spoiler, as they aim to bounce back from their first loss of the season.
Senior offensive/defensive linemen Cale Nieder said the Firebirds felt plenty of pressure not to let that happen.
“This has been made into a big game for us at practice by our coach because they’re up and coming, they’re a big passing team, and our pass coverage hasn’t been so great,” Nieder said. “But I think we’ll rise to the occasion.”
SM East boasts a prolific passing attack, led by senior quarterback John Schrock.
Schrock, currently the Sunflower League’s leading passer, operates an offense that Lisher said features a number of formations, which can make it tricky to contain.
“They like to chuck the ball, run a lot of different routes – man routes, zone routes – so it’s not something where you can just say, ‘This is what we’ve got to stop,’ because they do a lot of different routes, and they also run the ball well,” he said.
Lisher stressed the importance of Firebird defenders being able to read coverage correctly and stay solid on their assignments, but still acknowledged that the talented Schrock isn’t likely to be completely silenced.
“He’s going to complete some passes,” Lisher said. “We just can’t let him complete a lot of passes.”
Still, the burden is on the defense to hold its own against a quarterback who has thrown for a league-high 882 yards with six touchdowns.
That battle will start up front with the three Firebird defensive linemen: Nieder, McCandless and senior Zach Saunders. Nieder said the trio needs to generate enough of a pass rush to hurry Schrock.
“We’ve got a lot of guys in our face, but we’ve got to get through and get to him so he doesn’t have enough time in the backfield,” Nieder said.
Nieder added that a few early hits on Schrock would help their cause.
“Kind of get in his head, make him more tentative. We need to get back there and get to him,” he said.
The back end of the Firebirds defense – which has relinquished only 382 pass yards all season while snatching six interceptions – will need to be equally stingy.
“The big thing is our secondary needs to step up,” Fritzel, a receiver/defensive back, said. “We need to make plays, get the ball, force turnovers. Our defense needs to step up because our offense has been clicking pretty good.”
All indications are that the Firebirds are eager to hit the field.
“I love homecoming week,” McCandless said. “It’s always a huge crowd, everybody is into it, a ton of people come out to the game, the parade – just everything that goes along with it.”
That includes some playful jabs at Nieder, who is one of two Firebirds up for homecoming court.
“We’ve been running around school talking about ‘Nieder Nation,’” McCandless said with a laugh.
“I haven’t been getting it too bad, mostly they’ve been promoting me,” Nieder said.
All the homecoming fun aside, come game time, it’s business first for the Firebirds.
“When we have our helmets on, we’re focused on football,” Fritzel said.