Yes, Free State High football owns the top seed on the east side of the Class 6A playoffs bracket. Yes, the Firebirds’ goal is to win the next four games and earn the program’s first state championship. And, no, none of that will matter once the whistle blows for kickoff Friday night at FSHS for their first-round matchup with Shawnee Mission Northwest.
When Free State coach Bob Lisher examined the east bracket, he saw five other Sunflower League teams — all of which the Firebirds (8-1) faced, going 4-1 — and two non-league teams capable of making a run toward the 2013 title game, Nov. 30, at Yager Stadium, in Wichita.
Now in his 17th season at FSHS, Lisher said the team that makes it out of the east will have to earn it.
“It’s not easy, by any stretch of the imagination, starting with this week,” Lisher said. “This side of the bracket’s pretty loaded up. We struggled with Leavenworth, we struggled with Shawnee Mission Northwest, we managed to beat a couple of the other guys, we lost to Olathe North. There’s just a lot of ability on this side of the bracket, and whoever’s hot is gonna come out on top.”
Among the east playoff teams, Free State — ranked No. 2 in 6A by Kpreps.com, behind the west’s top seed, Derby (8-1) — beat No. 8 seed SMNW, No. 6 seed Olathe East, No. 2 seed Shawnee Mission East and No. 7 seed Leavenworth. The Firebirds lost to No. 5 seed Olathe North and didn’t face either of the Eastern Kansas League’s representatives, No. 3 seed Gardner-Edgerton and No. 4 seed Blue Valley Northwest.
Senior quarterback Joe Dineen said the Firebirds aren’t hiding their expectations for the rest of November.
“We want to win the rest of them, that’s for sure,” Dineen said. “We want to end the season with a win.”
That doesn’t mean, he added, Free State is looking past SMNW.
“The road to get there is really tough — a ton of good teams. We’ve played a lot of them in the league,” Dineen said. “It’ll be tough, but I think we can do it.”
Seven current Free State starters (Dineen, Reid Buckingham, Tyler Sampson, Zach Bickling, Stan Skwarlo, Keith Loneker and Blake Winslow) started during last season’s run to the state semifinals, and others played as backups. In 2012, the Firebirds won twice in the postseason before eventual champion Shawnee Mission West ended their season one victory away from the title game.
Lisher said his veterans now know how difficult it is to win in November.
“Hopefully you can learn from that,” he said. “Some of these kids played in those playoffs. Some didn’t. It’s just a matter of getting this team together, getting all 11 people on the same page at the same time.”
Dineen said last year’s season-ending, 48-21 loss to SMW in the semifinals is not a topic of conversation in the locker room.
“We just want to get better each and every week and pick up where we left off the week before,” Dineen said of the upcoming playoffs. “That’s what you’ve gotta do. You’ve gotta keep getting better, or you’re gonna lose.”