In a season full of memorable moments, Demarko Bobo remembers one play vividly. It wasn’t a highlight for the Free State High football senior cornerback, either. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The Firebirds held a seven-point lead in the second quarter against then-unbeaten Shawnee Mission East on Oct. 5. On fourth down, quarterback Kyle McFarland quick-kicked a punt, which FSHS downed inside the SME one-yard line. The Lancers would have had the entire field in front of them on their next possession. Except Bobo got flagged for a false start, negating the special teams execution.
“I must not have heard what the play was and the snap cue,” Bobo recalled.
Free State’s next punt, from Saxon Mingus, ended up as a touchback. FSHS coach Bob Lisher met Bobo when he returned to the sideline.
“You need to make up for that,” Lisher told him.
Bobo felt terrible about the mistake, and knew his coach was right. In the second quarter, the 5-foot-11 corner seized a chance at redemption on a pass across the middle by SME quarterback Jordan Darling.
“I saw the opportunity when the ball was tipped (by a linebacker) in the air and I broke on it and just followed my blockers into the end zone,” Bobo said of the pick-six, his second of the season.
Said Lisher: “I forgave him pretty quick.”
The coach said Bobo’s ability to recover from a mental mistake and produce one of the biggest plays of a Free State shutout victory served as a perfect example of how much Bobo has improved in the last two years.
“Thank goodness,” Lisher said, “because our secondary has been pretty good, and he’s a big part of it.”
The Firebirds (8-1) have disrupted opposing passers all season. Not only have they allowed just 14.2 points a game, but they became the Sunflower League’s top pass defense, allowing just 71 yards a game through the air. The fact that opponents have completed just 39 percent of their passes helped FSHS finish the regular season as the league leader in total defense (234.9 yards a game).
Between Bobo, senior corner McFarland and junior safety Joe Dineen, Free State has game-changing athletes in its secondary. Lisher said Bobo complements the other two defensive backs with his speed and ability to defend the run. Bobo has 23 total tackles thus far, with three interceptions and three deflected passes.
Bobo thinks he and McFarland have become one of the best corner tandems in the league.
“Knowing that he’s gonna get his job done just prepares me,” Bobo said, “and makes me want to try harder.”
McFarland leads Sunflower League defenders with four interceptions, and Dineen has three of his own. Firebirds defensive backs occupy three of the top seven spots among league interception leaders (Bobo and Dineen are tied with four others for second).
Dineen said Bobo’s speed and knowledge make him a dominant corner.
“He just makes plays for us,” Dineen said. “Whenever the defense can get turnovers it’s a momentum shift and it helps get the game back in our hands.”
But there’s more to Bobo’s proficiency. McFarland called him one of the hardest hitters on the team.
“I’ll make a tackle, but he’ll come up and pop kids,” McFarland said.
Still, Bobo said the play of Free State’s defensive line — Cody Stanclift, Riley Buller and Fred Wyatt — is keyed to the secondary’s success. He said it’s those three who deserve the most credit for opposing quarterbacks’ struggles.
“They’ve been getting pressure on them,” Bobo said. “It’s just making us look a lot better and gives us the opportunity to make breaks on the ball.”
Free State opens the postseason Friday with a 7 p.m. home game against Olathe North (3-6).