Monday’s football practice at Free State High centered on defense, and all the players on that side of the ball wore black mesh over their jerseys. Nobody talked about the school’s No. 1 ranking in the Class 6A poll unless asked about it.
Complacency always becomes a concern when plaudits start pouring in, but it’s clear the coaches have handled that issue properly.
“It makes us work harder because we still have a lot to strive for,” senior nose guard Riley Buller said. “I don’t think we’re truly No. 1 until we win a state championship. We have to keep working every day, trying to become a better team. We can always get better.”
Defensively, the Firebirds’ improvement has been noticeable in recent weeks. Shutting out Shawnee Mission East and its Kansas University-bound quarterback Jordan Darling had as much to do with the No. 1 ranking as anything.
“That was kind of a turning point for our team,” Buller said of Free State’s second shutout of the season.
The Firebirds followed that up with a 49-6 victory against K.C. Wyandotte, which has highly regarded Dimonic McKinzy at quarterback.
Free State defensive coordinator Brett Oberzan employs a 3-5-3 alignment, a popular defense for combating spread offenses.
The strength of any dominant defense starts up front, where 250-pound ends Fred Wyatt, a junior, and senior Cody Stanclift bring strength and agility. A three-year starter, Stanclift earned All-Sunflower League honors a year ago. Buller, a second-year starter, commands a double team, from which everyone else among the front eight benefits.
Second-year starter Corban Schmidt, all of 165 pounds, mans the middle linebacker position and leads the team in tackles.
“Not very big, but he’s a tough guy,” 16th-year Free State coach Bob Lisher said. “He loves to play football, and he’s physical.”
Keith Loneker and Blake Winslow, a pair of junior, first-year starters, flank Schmidt. As their understanding increases each week, so too does their confidence and performance.
Of Loneker, a fast-moving, driven 200-pounder who doesn’t let up until he hears the whistle, Lisher said, “He is a student of the game, works extremely hard, tries to get in the right spot and play physical. Blake is a physical guy, too. As those two guys are getting better, our defense is getting better.”
Junior Stan Skwarlo, a standout middle-distance runner who weighs 170 pounds, and senior Tye Hughes, a fast-moving, 160-pound battering ram, as outside linebackers have multiple responsibilities that require a blend of speed, toughness and attention to detail.
Senior Kyle McFarland, a first-team all-league defensive back a year ago, covers the opposition’s top receiver for the second year in a row. He has four interceptions as a cornerback and as the team’s full-time quarterback has thrown five in 102 passes.
Senior Demarko Bobo, a first-year starter, mans the other corner.
“He’s turned into an outstanding cover corner as well,” Lisher said. “That’s going to be crucial. With Leavenworth and Lawrence High coming up, we’re going to have to do a good job of coverage, obviously.”
The 11th starting defensive player mentioned here, No. 12 in the program, ranks No. 1 in terms of college prospects.
Junior Joe Dineen, next season’s quarterback, is the quarterback of the defense from his free safety position. A second-team all-league selection a year ago, Dineen gets everyone in the right place and brings a lot of speed to the punishing hits he delivers. He has a frame that can add considerable weight and now is listed at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds.
“He’s one of our big-time hitters,” Lisher said. “When he hits you, you know it. He had a great sophomore season, and he’s having an even better junior season. He’s one of our faster kids, and he makes a lot of plays in the secondary.”
The Firebirds long have been known for their explosive offenses blessed with speed and the head coach’s innovative offensive mind, but the in-season progress of the defense ranks as the No. 1 reason Free State ranks No. 1 among Kansas 6A schools.
“We just keep reminding our guys it’s nice to be recognized because that means we’re playing pretty good football. On the other hand, it means we’ve got a bull’s-eye on our back, and you better continue to work to get better or that bull’s-eye is going to get taken off. There are five, six teams that could be ranked No. 1 in the state, including Lawrence High. We just happened to beat a couple of teams at the right time to get moved up, and that’s the difference.”