Every coach heading into every rivalry game sounds pretty much the same. They talk about how each one on the schedule is important. They count the same in the standings. Meanwhile, in the stands the emotions run far deeper, tell a different story.
This time, the coaches are right. Far more than city bragging rights hang in the balance for tonight’s grudge match between visiting Free State and host Lawrence High, which kicks off at 7 p.m. at the LHS on-campus stadium.
Barring a monumental upset in a game played elsewhere, it basically comes down to this: Lawrence qualifies for the playoffs if it wins by seven points or more in regulation. Free State makes the playoffs if it wins, sends the game into overtime, or loses by less than seven points.
The only thing high school athletes hate worse than losing to a rival is seeing their seasons, and in many cases their careers, come to an end.
Effort won’t be in short supply tonight in the rivalry that for the most part is a friendly one between the players and — correct me if I’m wrong, I didn’t grow up in Lawrence — seems to grow a shade less petty by the year between boosters of the two schools. (If there’s anything in life I love, it’s pretending to act the pacifier by throwing in a line like that, which actually only serves to incite ill will between bickering sides. The best part: Nobody ever notices I’m just stirring the pot. With any luck, nobody ever will.)
Anyway, the strange set of circumstances heading into tonight’s contest leaves Free State wanting to win the game, LHS wanting to win the game by seven points in regulation.
The Firebirds of Free State have won the past four city rivalry games by an average score of 35-11. In all four of those victories, Free State had a speedy dual-threat quarterback: Ryan Murphy (2006), Craig Rosenstengle (2007) and Camren Torneden (2008, 2009).
This year, both teams feature a quarterback who stings through the air and the ground. Free State senior Dylan Perry had to wait his turn as Torneden’s understudy and has been even better than expected. Poised Lions sophomore QB Brad Strauss has some longtime observers of local high school football wondering whether he has a chance to develop into as good a quarterback as the city ever has seen. (John Hadl was a running back in high school.)
Head coaches Bob Lisher of Free State and Dirk Wedd of LHS — friends when they aren’t enemies — have a great deal of respect for both starting quarterbacks.
“He’s the catalyst who gets everything rolling for them,” Lisher said of Strauss. “The coaching staff has done a nice job of bringing him along. He’s a good athlete. He can run and he can throw. But what stands out the most about him on film is he doesn’t get rattled. He does a lot of nice things for a sophomore in this league.”
Said Wedd of Perry: “He’s a winner. No ifs, ands or buts. When they need a big play, it’s amazing, he gets it for them. He’s made more 60-, 70-yard runs than anybody I’ve ever seen. He has that innate ability to will his team to victory.”
Willing his team to victory is Perry’s challenge tonight. Willing his to a victory of seven points or more in regulation is Strauss’.