High School Sports

High School Sports

Opinion: Firebirds’ late-season letdown serves as lesson

November 17, 2012


— It’s never a good sign when it’s early in the third quarter and the tuba players already are playing Hacky Sack in the stands. It generally means they either have lost interest in the game or find it too painful to watch. In the case of a couple of Free State band members Friday night it was probably both.

In a game that looked not a bit like the other 11 the Firebirds played, Free State lost to Shawnee Mission West, 48-21, in a 6A semifinal played in Shawnee Mission South District Stadium.

Among the atypical Free State blunders: A pair of early personal fouls, a couple of punts into the back of the punter’s personal protector, a cornerback getting torched on a post route, the Vikings’ touchdown return of the opening kickoff of the second half.

It didn’t seem fitting for such a hard-working, talented senior class go out that way, but it stands as a valuable lesson for a junior class loaded with enough talent and experience to make another run at state a year from now. In short, either bring even more attention to detail, greater desire and focus to the playoffs than to big regular-season games or listen to this in the locker room after the game: “Turn in your equipment Monday. That’s helmet, shoulder pads, hip pads, knee pads, practice jersey, practice pants. Take the mouthpiece off the helmet before turning it in and remove all the tape from the shoulder pads.”

For some, those words are the last they hear in a locker room full of teammates.

In the playoffs, the losers must ride back home with the stink of defeat befouling the bus air while the winners celebrate and their coaches already hatch plans for the state-title game Saturday in Topeka.

Free State (10-2) had so little trouble running the ball on the way to a game-opening drive to take a 6-0 lead.

It’s always so tempting to play pop psychologist when the opposite of what appears ready to happen transpires. Free State didn’t score again until the fourth quarter, and by then it had found itself behind, 41-6. How did it happen? Maybe the opening drive was just too easy.

The Firebirds’ ability to pass when opposing defensive coordinators schemed against their running game made them tough to stop all season. They kept defenses guessing. In this one, the Firebirds quickly shifted from the opening-drive ground game to the air, hoping to exploit a defense that had to load up against the run. It didn’t work and in the blink of an eye Free State was down 17-6 on the way to a 27-6 deficit at the half. The momentum of the opening drive vanished, never to be discovered again.

Free State had defeated Shawnee Mission West in the same stadium, 28-14, during the regular season. Lust for revenge always gives the first-game loser an emotional edge. Plus, with the game televised, many in Lawrence evidently took that more convenient seat to watch the game. The green turnout was disappointing, and really shouldn’t the team with the better seed play at home in every playoff game? What a silly system.

Another pop-psychology possibility in analyzing the shockingly lopsided loss delves into the subconscious. Try to imagine the excitement level of players from both Free State and Lawrence had the Lions not lost to Shawnee Mission West the previous week. Heck, not just the players, the entire town. Such a rematch would have guaranteed a Lawrence high school playing for a state title. When it didn’t happen, it’s possible the Firebirds experienced a letdown without even knowing it. I know I did. Anybody else?

Moving from the realm of psychology to tangible football reasons Shawnee Mission West plays Saturday in Topeka for a state title against Hutchinson, it’s best to look at consecutive plays — specifically the last of the first half and the first of the second half. They were executed by the two Vikings who were the team’s most valuable players of the game.

Senior kicker Joey Reed gave Free State bad field position all night by booming kickoffs into the end zone. On the final play of the first half, Reed kicked a 43-yard field goal.

Junior wide receiver Andre Maloney, a 6-foot-3, 185-pound burner, returned the opening kickoff of the second half 82 yards for a touchdown, destroying all the motivational work done in the Free State locker room during halftime. Maloney sprinkled jet fuel all over the game with returns, quality coverage and a 33-yard touchdown reception.

Reed and Maloney helped Shawnee Mission West reach its first state title game since 2006, where it lost to Hutchinson, 21-14, after defeating Free State in the semifinals.

In a year that felt very much as if a Lawrence team would represent the eastern half of the state in the title game, the team going instead earned the trip and left no doubt about it being most deserving of the honor.


fbird1 5 years, 7 months ago

First. The head coach at Hutch is originally from Victoria, KS. I know him and his family personally. He isn't going anywhere. He'd prefer being closer to his family. Second. Lisher is an excellent coach. If you know anything about football you would understand this. Third. When Lisher decides to retire who do you think the next coach will be? This is Kansas high school football, not Texas. It's not like coaches are lining up for jobs that pay an extra 3000 to 6000 a year, maybe a little more at a place like Hutch or Gardner.

Smcfarland5594 5 years, 7 months ago

"In short, either bring even more attention to detail, greater desire and focus..." Seriously? Would Mr. Keegan ever print this about a LHS loss, playoff or regular season. Free State had a great year, and an ugly loss to end it. But that loss had nothing to do with the coaches or players lack of attention to detail, lack of desire or lack of focus. I would submit, the FS coaches spend exponentially more attention to detail at their profession than any of us. Furthermore, it's laughable to suggest our players lacked desire, if you knew how much blood, sweat and tears they put into this program. Finally, "it’s possible the Firebirds experienced a letdown without even knowing it....", because LHS lost the week before. Really? Free State did not lose this Friday because LHS lost the week before. Spare us with your psyco-babble drivel. Thank you Free State coaches and players for a special season. Best of luck in the future to everyone involved with the program.

Rick Werner 5 years, 7 months ago

I agree with McFarland all the way. These kids worked their butts off to get further than any of the KC, Lawrence or Sunflower league sports writers thought they would at the beginning of the season. To suggest they would even care about LHS is just ridiculous. Free State football has the best program of any sport at any school in Kansas. If the LJ World sports writers cant recognize this then maybe they need to start doing the 3:00AM farm report. Thank you Free State Coaches and especially Coach Lisher. Also a huge thanks to the Seniors. They took on the role of leaders to perfection and it was an honor watching you. Cant wait for the day when the LJ World recognizes what a great program there is on the NW side of town.

ComeOnMannnnnnn 5 years, 7 months ago

I thought this was a good article. The LHS reference was terrible. haha I can see how that pops into your brain as interesting but you really need to real that one back in. My son does play on the Free State team and I've been to ever game. Friday night I did feel like we as a whole team made some crucial mistakes. That's part of the game. I do believe we didn't respond well after being hit in the mouth like we have before and that was unfortunate. There is a lot to learn from that game for everyone in both football and life. Now is the time for the Firebirds to truthfully evaluate what they did right and where they need to get better. Write it down now and remember the feeling. Tom is right, the Jr class has plenty of talent, but if they don't pay attention to detail and realize the focus and practice tempo it takes week in and week out to make the state run, they could be reliving this feeling all over again. FreeStateFan your comments are obviously personal. I think Coach Lisher is a good enough coach to know there are places he too can get better, there is room for improvement for everyone. But I have never seen him miss a block,miss a tackle,drop a pass, throw the ball bad etc. The blame isn't all his. So if you don't like OUR coach drop the "FreeStateFan" name and call yourself something else. We got a coach and we aren't looking for another one. We will get better go back to work. We will challenge our present Jr's leadership to demand more focus and toughness to achieve our fight for a state championship.We appreciate our Senior class for the direction they took our team. Free State Football

Smcfarland5594 5 years, 7 months ago

COM..I don't disagree with most of your post. This should serve as a great life lesson for all involved. To copesis1 point, I also believe FS is fortunate to have the football coaches that we have. Coach Lisher and his staff consistantly end the season ranked higher than preseason polls. I still stand by my original points. 1) I don't believe Mr. Keegan writes the same article about LHS. 2) FS didn't lose because LHS lost the week before. Complete Hogwash. Moving forward, FS Football is in good hands next year with a very talented SR class coming in and Coach Lisher et al coaching and leading them along the way. Finally, thanks to everyone involved in making this one of the most enjoyable seasons ever from a parent/fan perspective. Seniors...its been a true pleasure watching you all over the years. Couldn't be more proud of all of you. Thank you.

Clickker 5 years, 7 months ago

I'm pretty sure Keegan didnt mean that FS lost because LHS "lost the week before". I think his point was that in his mind, the kids were looking so forward to a remach that it may have been a letdown. Who knows, that definately could be the case, it happens all the time at bigger programs than these. Keegs has been phoning it in for some time now. I have seen him briefly show up to games/matches....talk to a coach, then write an article as though he was there 30 mins before to 30 mins after the game. In all fairness though, I do think he writes the same article about LHS had they been in that situation. It was an upset with the higher seeded team playing uncharacteristicly poor. That was a lay me down for O'le Keegs. Bik is right...the Juniors need to shore things up and get to work. FS will be OK.

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