After a frenzied first half, the Free State and Lawrence High football teams trotted to the locker room, apparently in the midst of an epic regular-season finale.
When both teams returned to the field, however, that feeling didn’t last long.
Behind a monster third quarter, the Firebirds blasted the Lions, 42-20, and emerged from the cross-town battle victorious for the fifth straight year.
“It’s unbelievable,” FSHS senior right guard/nose tackle Justin McCandless said. “This is the most fun I’ve had ever playing football in my whole entire life, no doubt.”
The mood on the Lions’ side was markedly different.
“It’s my last game of football ever,” emotional LHS senior receiver Chris Gaston said. “I was just trying to play as hard as I could because you never know your last game is going to come — and it came tonight.”
The game was tied 14-14 at the half, but the Firebirds blew it open by ripping off 28 unanswered points, 21 coming in just under a five-minute span.
With the way Lawrence High was playing, that was not expected,” FSHS coach Bob Lisher said. “But when you come out and you play hard, and you put people in the right position to make plays, that’s what happens.”
Senior quarterback Dylan Perry led the way for the Firebirds with 187 rushing yards and four touchdowns, and senior running back Preston Schenck added 128 rushing yards and a defensive score.
LHS sophomore quarterback Brad Strauss threw for 127 yards, and running back Charles Jackson rushed for 114 yards and all three Lion touchdowns, but also had two costly fumbles.
Perry and the Firebirds moved the ball well in the first half, but the Lions fought them to a standstill on the strength of big throws from Strauss and two powerful touchdown runs by Jackson.
And after opening the second half with the ball, LHS appeared poised to move ahead.
That momentum quickly faded, though, as the Firebirds forced a three-and-out for minus-11 yards and promptly marched 45-yards in eight plays for the score.
“We really needed to have a drive to catch our breath,” LHS coach Dirk Wedd said.
The Firebirds forced another punt on the ensuing drive, but were backed up at their own five-yard line after a penalty. Perry hobbled off the field because of cramps, which gave the Lions some life.
Not for long.
On the next play, Schenck took the handoff 76-yards down the sideline — sprung by a huge block from McCandless — and Perry returned to the field to punch it in five plays later for his fourth score.
Two plays after the kickoff, Free State senior linebacker Henry Vaeono blasted Jackson in the backfield, scooped up the fumble and sprinted into the end zone.
“It just snowballed,” Wedd said. “We weren’t good enough to stop the bleeding.”
The nightmare third quarter ended for the Lions, but the Firebird onslaught wasn’t finished.
Jackson fumbled again to begin the fourth quarter, and though Strauss recovered, he also put the ball on the ground, allowing Schenck to pick it up and trot over the line for the score.
Faster than folks could get back into their seats from the concession stands, it was 42-12 Firebirds.
“Big plays are demoralizing,” a grinning McCandless said.
“For the other team,” he quickly added.
Lisher said the Firebirds made key adjustments on defense at halftime, but didn’t change anything in their offensive strategy.
“We knew that we could come out and move the ball on them,” Perry said. “So we just treated it like a shorter game when we came out after halftime. We just knew it was a new game, like it was 0-0.”
As their fans mobbed them on the field after the game, the Firebirds (5-4, 2-1) weren’t simply celebrating another victory over their rivals. They get to play on, advancing out of their district and into the Class 6A playoffs.
“All we wanted was another week to come out and practice again. That was our big goal,” McCandless said. “Beating LHS is always great, but our goal is keep playing another week; it was either win or check it in on Monday, and we definitely got it done.”