For the first 30 or so minutes, an observer with a halfway-decent sense of recent Free State High soccer history had to wonder if the Firebirds’ first game in the Class 6A state playoffs might be their last.
Though FSHS spent most of its time in the attacking half of the field and its defense was smothering, the Firebirds kept missing golden opportunities — point-blank shots, empty-netters — and found themselves locked in a scoreless tie with playoff nemesis Topeka High on Tuesday at FSHS.
Finally, in the 32nd minute, Zack Thompson broke the drought, scoring machine Jake Walter added an insurance goal in the 59th minute, and Free State advanced to the regional final with a 2-0 victory.
“We played pretty well,” Free State junior goalie Luke Lesslie said, “but we could have finished more opportunities. We’re happy we won, but we could have done more.”
If nothing else, the Firebirds (9-6-2) exorcised one playoff demon.
Last year, Free State beat the Trojans in the regular season and was favored in the playoffs. But THS stuck around and claimed a 1-0, double-overtime victory that ended the Firebirds’ season.
Earlier this season, FSHS beat Topeka, 4-0, and as a No. 2 seed hosting a No. 7, again was favored in the playoffs. THS (2-14) stuck around, but Thompson, late in the first half, and Walter, midway through the second, flipped the script.
“We knew this was the same team that knocked us out last year,” Walter said. “So we really wanted to put it in the back of the net. We did a good job of putting pressure on them, but I don’t know what it was. I feel like I personally wasn’t on the top of my game. We kept missing shots. A couple were open nets. But we’re happy to be moving on.”
They are in large part thanks to an efficient defense that made it easy for Lesslie to record the shutout.
“I guess I played OK,” he said. “I got a clean sheet, but it was the defense. They made me look good.”
In FSHS coach Kelly Barah’s eyes, Lesslie was one of the few Firebirds who did. But Barah wholeheartedly embraced the survive-and-advance ethos of the playoffs.
“We weren’t as crisp as we usually are,” Barah said. “But it was good enough to get a win.”
Barah didn’t buy the idea the Firebirds were distracted by either their unfortunate recent history with Topeka or the allure of meeting their biggest rival, cross-town frenemy Lawrence High, in the regional final.
Having dispatched of the former, FSHS earned a date Thursday with the latter. LHS advanced to Thursday’s 6 p.m. regional final at FSHS with a 5-0 victory over Junction City on Tuesday at Lawrence High.
“We usually don’t look ahead,” Barah said. “This team does a great job of following the saying ‘One game at a time.’ I assume it was because of nerves of playing in a playoff game.”
Even afterward, Barah didn’t much care to look ahead to the Lions, a team FSHS played to a controversial scoreless tie back on Oct. 13.
“We really don’t care who we play,” he said. “We’re just excited to be able to stay in the playoffs, and we’re excited to be playing at home.”
Walter was slightly less diplomatic.
“Especially after what happened last time at the end,” Walter said, referring to a missed one-on-one opportunity near the LHS goal with 16 seconds to go in the double-overtime game, “my whole motivation, personally, has been to play them again.”