The four Free State High standouts go back a long way — long enough to recount playing football together in three different uniforms, and certainly long enough for their parents to document it all in scrap books and photo albums.
Cale Nieder and Justin McCandless, the two linemen of the bunch, met first as fifth-grade teammates on the Lawrence Hurricanes.
Dylan Perry, who played against them for one year as a member of the Lawrence Cougars, joined them a year later on the Hurricanes.
Preston Schenck didn’t show up until ninth grade, when he and his family moved to town from South Carolina. By then, McCandless, Nieder and Perry were close friends playing for Southwest Junior High, but it didn’t take long for Schenck to prove his worth.
In his first game as a Bulldog, Schenck — then sporting a scraggly head of hair (“He looked like a California surfer,” McCandless joked) — fielded the opening kickoff and zipped through defenders for a lengthy touchdown.
“We were all just kind of like, who is this kid,” McCandless said.
The four, each two-way starters for the Firebirds during their senior season, may have been playing together since they were little guys in big helmets, but they haven’t tired of each other yet.
Just the opposite, in fact, as all four of them signed national letters of intent to play football at Baker University last Wednesday.
“It’s football, and these guys,” Nieder said, “they just go together. I don’t know if we could have it another way.”
That almost wasn’t the case, though, as each player was very much on his own during the beginning stages of recruitment.
The process was fun initially, be it all the attention and phone calls from inquiring coaches to leaving school early to go on visits.
But as the barrage of questions regarding their decisions increased, the luster quickly wore off.
At one point, Perry debated whether he even wanted to keep playing.
Schenck, too, described many sleepless nights when he stared at the ceiling pondering his options.
Then, suddenly, things quickly started falling into place.
Perry ultimately chose to play and was sold after an official visit to Baker. McCandless and Schenck visited together a week later and were equally enamored.
Nieder knew Baker was a good fit as early as last summer, when he attended a few camps, but the two sides had since fallen out of contact.
So when Nieder got a surprise phone call, he was in, too, and suddenly the four Firebirds had four offers to be Wildcats next year.
“It was a chance you really can’t turn down,” Perry said.
The next level
Decision made, papers signed, they can now relax and enjoy the remainder of their senior years at FSHS before heading to Baker, where they’re planning on sharing a four-person suite at one of the on-campus dorms.
“They’ll probably pick on me,” Schenck said. “And I’ll clean everything. I’ll be like Mr. Mom.”
McCandless, an All-Sunflower League first-team selection at right guard, will remain on the offensive line, where he’s played since he first donned a pair of shoulder pads.
Nieder, too, plans to stay at center, also where he’s played since a youth coach discovered his knack for snapping. But the trim Nieder said he plans on gaining 30-40 pounds to fill the role.
“He’ll have a neck like Brian Urlacher,” McCandless joked.
Schenck, who racked up 11 all-purpose TDs during his senior year, will either remain at running back or move to safety, a position he has some familiarity with.
Perry, on the other hand, is moving from quarterback (where he was also an All-Sunflower League first-teamer) to receiver, where he hopes that his quickness and vision in the open field — as evidenced by his 22 total touchdowns last year — will translate well.
Positions aside, the boys are excited for four more years on the field together, though things will be a bit different once they arrive on campus.
“I think it’s going to be funny, us being the little guys again,” Nieder said.