To hear Free State High offensive guard Justin McCandless tell it, there’s no better feeling than laying a crushing block on a defender and springing a teammate free for a long touchdown.
Such big plays were a staple of the Firebirds offense earlier this year. Last week in a 17-0 loss against Olathe East, they were nowhere to be found.
The Firebirds struggled to hold off East’s strong defensive unit and mustered only 106 yards from scrimmage. The other big number? Zero points.
Undeterred, the Firebirds (3-3) are looking regain their offensive identity at 7 p.m. tonight when they host Olathe Northwest (2-4).
“Coach has been talking about a lot this week how we need to not be a finesse line, we need to get back to being physical again,” said McCandless, who also plays nose tackle on defense.
Coming off of two straight losses, Free State begins district play, and needs at least two victories over the final three games to advance to regionals.
“There’s a big sense of urgency,” junior wide receiver Desmond Wyatt said.
If the postseason implications weren’t enough, it’s also Senior Night.
“If we don’t play well, it could be our last home game, so our kids want to play very well to give themselves to get the district thing taken care of so we have another chance at home later on,” coach Bob Lisher said.
Behind the offensive line, senior running back Preston Schenck’s sprained ankle is improving, and Dylan Perry’s ankle is nearly back to full strength, which should improve FSHS’s running game.
That won’t matter much, though, if the Firebirds can’t correct the mistakes they made last week.
Those blunders, including five penalties and six sacks allowed, proved costly against Olathe East, but McCandless said they were mostly mental errors, which makes them easier to eliminate.
“We had guys blocking the wrong people, not knowing their assignments, we were making week two or three errors in week six — and we can’t do that again,” he said.
McCandless and the Firebirds are eager to start Senior Night off with some early excitement. Of course, that also means getting back to playing physical.
“If you come out and punch them in the mouth early, the crowd gets excited and the environment just kind of takes over, it’s a tough thing to overcome when you’re away,” McCandless said. “So we’ve got to come out early and take care of business.”