City Showdown football week has arrived in Lawrence.
Free State (7-1 overall, 2-0 district) and Lawrence (7-1, 2-0) — two of the top teams in Class 6A — have been the talk of the town’s Friday night football fans for weeks. Those discussions and debates inevitably turned to who would win between the Lions and Firebirds.
Everybody will have an answer at the conclusion of this week’s rivalry game — kickoff 7 p.m. Friday at LHS.
Leading up to what has become a District 1 championship game for the two playoff-bound programs, Free State coach Bob Lisher acknowledged that those directly involved in deciding the outcome are the only folks who haven’t spent weeks openly deliberating the most anticipated game on the schedule.
“Everybody else has,” Lisher said. “Lawrence High and us have been concentrating on just getting to this point.”
LHS and Wichita Heights are the only two teams in 6A that enter the final week of the regular season on a seven-game winning streak. The Lions have done it behind the big-play capability of senior quarterback Brad Strauss and his reliable senior receivers, Erick Mayo, Drake Hofer and Will Thompson.
The only blemish on the Firebirds’ record is a three-point home loss to Olathe South on Sept. 14. Since then, they have won five straight games, with senior quarterback Kyle McFarland steadily leading the offense and a defensive unit that has overwhelmed its opponents in four straight blowout victories.
The anticipation for this week’s game, LHS coach Dirk Wedd said, hasn’t been lost on anyone.
“It’s a big game, because the kids are friends with those guys, and they played baseball and basketball and all that kind of stuff and probably went to school together at Southwest and Central (middle schools),” Wedd said. “It means a lot to them, because they want to walk around for 365 days and puff their chest out.”
All of those elements add to a rivalry game that will reward the winner with a first-round home playoff game and possibly a No. 1 seed. Lisher said Free State will prepare as usual, but that might be difficult.
“This is a big game for the kids because of the district championship, because it’s a rival and all that, but you’ve gotta remember both teams are in the playoffs,” the coach said, adding that FSHS needs to have something left for next week, because the season won’t be over.
Wedd agreed: “This one, however it turns out … we’re still gonna meet on Saturday and practice Monday.”
As far as this week of practice goes, Lisher and his staff are trying to put together a plan to stop the Lions’ high-scoring offense (37.1 points a game).
“They’re very, very good,” Lisher said. “They spread you out, and Strauss delivers the ball on target and has great receivers that can catch the ball. They’ve got running backs that follow their offensive line and make great plays, too. So they can run and pass efficiently.”
Free State averages 39.1 points a game, so Wedd also expects his team to be challenged this week. Part of that comes in finding the right combination of intensity and preparation at practices.
“You don’t want to peak on Wednesday,” Wedd said, “you want to peak on Friday.”
With a veteran group that includes nine three-year starters, Wedd isn’t overly worried about a hype-filled week of distractions. He’s more concerned about his defense’s ability to slow down Free State and its offensive line.
“I don’t know if we can knock ’em off the ball,” Wedd said.
League title hopes
A win in the City Showdown would mean an added bonus for Lawrence. Because the Sunflower League only counts the final seven games of the season against league opponents in its standings, the Lions are 6-0 in the league and could share or win the league championship with a victory. Shawnee Mission West (7-1), like Lawrence, lost in the first two weeks of the season and has a 6-0 league mark.
SMW actually defeated LHS, 20-14, in the season opener, but it wasn’t considered a league game in the standings. If SM West defeats Shawnee Mission Northwest on Friday, as expected, the Vikings would win the league title outright with a Lawrence loss. Wins for both LHS and SMW would mean co-champions.
Free State, 5-1 in the league, is likely out of the mix for a league title, even though the Firebirds beat SMW, 28-14, on Sept. 7. That also came before the start of the official league schedule. The Firebirds, with a win over LHS, would need heavily favored SM West to lose this week in order to factor into the co-champion picture.