Earlier this season, finding success running the football against Free State High’s defense wasn’t as simple as handing the ball off to a back.
That wasn’t the case last week.
Shawnee Mission East burned the Firebirds for 215 yards on the ground.
The Firebirds were disappointed, but certainly not discouraged.
“Last week was definitely motivation for us,” senior defensive end/center Cale Nieder said. “We’ve always been good against the run; we just had to fix a few things.”
Nieder and his teammates will get that chance tonight when the Firebirds (3-2) face off against Olathe East at 7 p.m. at College Boulevard Activity Center, where the task of stopping the run won’t be any easier.
East’s senior running back Brandon Willingham currently leads the Sunflower League in rushing with 738 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“I’m sure they’re going to come out with their strength, which is get the ball to the tailback and run, and we’ll just have to see if we match up well enough to win it,” coach Bob Lisher said.
Based on what Free State has seen in film preparation, they not only know who the playmakers are, but what plays they’ll be running.
“They run a lot of (isolation) and trap plays, pretty much basic stuff that we’ve seen, but we just need to do our jobs as individuals and I think we can come out with the win if we can do that,” senior quarterback/cornerback Dylan Perry said.
Simply knowing what’s coming doesn’t guarantee anything for the Firebirds, though.
“We’ve got to make the right reads and make tackles, we’ve got to grab cloth,” Lisher said. “Because they’re not going to go down easy, I know that.”
Turnovers plagued the Hawks (4-1) in last week’s upset loss to Lawrence High. Lisher and the Firebirds aren’t taking that for granted.
“They’ve turned the ball over a few times, but we cant expect them to do that,” Lisher said. “We’ve got to go out, take it away from them, and score when we have a chance.”
The Hawks aren’t only strong on offense; they boast a stout defense that has limited opponents to 166.2 yards per game, also tops in the Sunflower League.
So, like on the other side of the ball, it’s strength against strength — as they’ll likely see healthy doses of Perry (646, 8 TDs), who sits right behind Willingham in total rushing yards.
Running back Preston Schenck (401 yards, 6 TDs) is also expected to return to the lineup after missing last week’s game with a high ankle sprain.
“Coach says that they’re fast, but we’re fast, too,” Perry said. “It all starts up front. I think if we can block well, then we’ll be able to score.”
Those scores might not come via the big plays that the Firebirds are used to.
“We’ve got to be able to run at people and not just around them,” Lisher said. “We’ve just got to get better at punching the ball inside some.”
The Firebirds are anticipating a physical contest.
“We’ve just got to come out and hit them hard,” Nieder said. “But we’ve got to continue that focus throughout the game. We always have a lull period, and we need to eliminate that.”