Overland Park 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.
Free State v. Shawnee Mission West
Photos from Free State's state semifinal game against Shawnee Mission West.
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.