For years, everybody knew this was going to be a rebuilding season for a Free State High football program with quite the winning tradition going for itself, but just 13 seniors on the roster.
Things don’t always go as expected. Sometimes they go a whole lot better.
Four games into this football season, the Firebirds have won three games. An extremely experienced, talented coach, Bob Lisher, and young players short on varsity experience and long on ability, certainly have a great deal to do with that. And so does a senior class short on quantity and long on quality.
Seniors had their fingerprints all over Friday night’s 42-7 homecoming blasting of Shawnee Mission Northwest.
Running back Shawn Knighton, generously listed at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, in a way equates the ideal symbol for this senior class in that he’s small but valuable. Darting through physical blocks, Knighton rushed for 166 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries and gained 10 yards or more on seven rushes. His final carry was his longest, a 51-yard touchdown.
“Shawn makes the best cuts I’ve seen in a while,” classmate Calloway Schmidt said. “It doesn’t matter about his size. He runs harder than anybody else I’ve seen.”
Schmidt, a 6-2, 170-pound ball magnet of a linebacker, intercepted one pass and nearly snagged another, but the ball popped loose when he hit the ground. Even without that, Schmidt has three interceptions this season. He nearly picked up a sack and settled for hurrying the quarterback into an incompletion.
Senior kicker Kale Joyce nailed all six extra-point kicks, and classmate Adam Joice repeatedly heard his name called over the loudspeaker for making tackles. Fellow senior Andrew McLees made good use of four carries late in the game, running for 10 yards on his third carry. The physical play of Jimmy Fernandez, Seth Holiday and Caylor Norris are three big reasons the offensive line has exceeded expectations. Nate Fiester and Austin Green are enjoying strong senior seasons on the defensive line, as is inside linebacker Tim Turner. Ryan Patterson led the Firebirds with three receptions for 43 yards Friday. Tony Woolery, like the senior class as a whole, is an undersized overachiever.
“We have a small group, but we play hard and we play together,” Schmidt said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect coming into the season. I thought we might have some problems, just because of our lack of experience, but our young players have been stepping it up, and our seniors have been showing leadership.”
Knighton said the seniors go out to eat together the night before games. He said each of the 13 from the Class of 2012 met for a meal at Hy-Vee after Thursday’s practice.
Having so much talent behind them requires making sacrifices, and the seniors don’t show any jealousy.
“I decided to make the switch to just receiver (on offense) because I thought our young talent was pretty phenomenal,” said Schmidt, a former quarterback. “Our two quarterbacks (junior Kyle McFarland and sophomore Joe Dineen) and a lot of other young players are going to be studs in coming years.”
Like this year, for example.