The last time Free State High faced Shawnee Mission West in the Class 6A state football playoffs, junior linebackers Stan Skwarlo and Keith Loneker were ball boys for the Firebirds.
It was 2006, Skwarlo and Loneker were in fifth grade, and — just like they will at 7 tonight at Shawnee Mission South District Stadium (with live TV coverage on Metro Sports) — the Firebirds and Vikings met in the state semifinals.
“It was cool being around it,” Loneker said, “because you got to learn the scheme, like what we were gonna grow up to play, and we got to watch what people think are the best Firebird teams.”
Skwarlo admitted only remembering bits and pieces of the semifinal from six years ago, which SMW won, 31-14.
“I just remember it being a real physical game, like what it’s gonna be (tonight),” Skwarlo said.
FSHS coach Bob Lisher has a much clearer picture of that loss, as well as his program’s other postseason meetings with SMW, in his mind. Though the Firebirds have gone 3-2 against the Vikings since the 2006 semifinal (including a 28-14 road victory 10 weeks ago), Free State is 0-3 all-time against SMW in the playoffs.
The coach is glad to have the one-time ball boys Loneker and Skwarlo playing linebacker for the Firebirds this time around.
“Those two are just physical, hard-nosed players,” Lisher said. “And they don’t like to be defeated, and that’s what you’ve gotta have in your players. Those two guys, they don’t like to lose not only in a game, but they don’t like to lose on any down.”
Free State (10-1) enters its playoff rematch with SMW (10-1) on an eight-game winning streak. The Vikings, winners of nine straight, haven’t lost since their Week 2 loss to the Firebirds. Lisher said his team watched some of that game after Wednesday’s practice.
“There’s some things we did really well that we’re gonna try to build on,” the coach said, “and there’s some things we didn’t do very well against them the first time that we’re gonna try to eliminate.”
The good for Free State included deep completions from Kyle McFarland to Loneker and Zach Bickling, 133 rushing yards for McFarland, two rushing touchdowns for running back TJ Cobbs and a punt-return TD by Tye Hughes. On defense, McFarland twice picked off SMW QB AJ Verdini.
The biggest negative on a turnover-free night for FSHS was giving up 152 rushing yards and a touchdown to the Vikings’ Brett Sterbach, who has carried the SMW offense all season. Of late, though, the Vikings’ running game has added the Wildcat element to its offense, with Andre Maloney in the backfield.
Skwarlo said Free State is even more sound defensively now than it was in its Week 2 win, and the Firebirds know Sterbach and Maloney have game-changing ability.
“We just need to make sure we seal up our gaps,” Skwarlo said, “and make sure there’s nowhere for them to run.”
FSHS averages 350.9 yards a game on offense and has given up 238.2 yards a game on defense. The Firebirds have outscored opponents by an average of 37-15.2.
Free State last reached the title game in 2008, when it lost to Junction City, 19-14.