The high school football season is over for most Class 6A programs in Kansas. But two of the eight teams still in the hunt for the 2012 state championship reside right here in Lawrence.
As other playoff participants turned in their equipment and uniforms Monday afternoon, players from Lawrence High and Free State headed back onto their respective home fields to begin another week of practice. By sealing up District 1’s two postseason berths, the Lions and Firebirds made the playoffs in the same season for the first time since 2008. Before LHS won at Gardner-Edgerton and FSHS beat Olathe North on Friday, the only time both city programs advanced out of the opening round in the same season was 2006.
So this kind of simultaneous success is fairly unusual.
“I think it’s a testament to two programs that have worked very hard to get where they’re at,” 14th-year Lawrence coach Dirk Wedd said.
Wedd has a lot of respect for Free State coach Bob Lisher, who has led the program since its inception in 1997.
“His kids are so well coached and so disciplined. It’s not a flash in the pan,” Wedd said. “They’ve been good over time. We’ve had stretches of being good, and we’ve been down, and it’s been so enjoyable to have this group climb back up the mountain again.”
This is the first time since 2005 and 2006 that LHS made back-to-back playoff appearances. Free State earned postseason berths 10 straight seasons before failing to do so in 2011.
LHS junior center Kyle Wittman said this season has been crazy for the rival programs.
“When I was younger, it always seemed like one team was dominant and the other team wasn’t,” Wittman said. “Now there’s just so much talent out there in the city.”
In his 16th year coaching the Firebirds, Lisher is proud that LHS (8-2) and FSHS (9-1) are in the state quarterfinals.
“We’re all from Lawrence. We all want Lawrence kids to do well, regardless of what building they’re in,” said Lisher, who played at LHS and served as an assistant coach there. “It’s an exciting time for everybody.”
Both teams will play host in the 6A quarterfinals Friday — each game kicks off at 7 p.m. Shawnee Mission West (9-1) visits Lawrence, and Olathe East (6-4) goes to Free State.
Wittman said it’s great that both programs are doing well, but in general the Lions have a “whatever happens, happens” opinion regarding Firebirds outcomes.
“We’re just focusing on ourselves,” Wittman said. “Our thing all year has been just to focus on the week at hand.”
In the weeks leading up to the regular-season finale between the rival programs, FSHS senior linebacker Corban Schmidt admitted he might have been happy to hear that LHS lost, but other than the Lions’ season-opening setback to SMW, it just didn’t happen. On any given Friday, Schmidt said Free State players kept up with LHS results through friends, social media or newspapers and websites. The only thing that bothers him is when the two teams are compared and they aren’t even playing each other that week.
“We want all Lawrence football to do good,” Schmidt said, “but when it comes to us versus them, we always want us to do better.”
Usually it’s only one week a year the two sides collide, but if the Lions and Firebirds win Friday, they would meet up again in the state semifinals — just three weeks removed from Free State’s 28-14 victory at LHS.
Not that any players or coaches are giving that possible rematch much thought at this juncture.
“I just kind of think about what a powerhouse Lawrence could be right now if we were still just one school,” Schmidt said. “But I’m glad to be at Free State instead of Lawrence High.”