The football sailed through the air toward the end zone, and Joel Spain had a bead on it.
A Free State High junior cornerback, Spain never let Lawrence High receiver Zay Boldridge get a step on him. But when the jump ball Lions quarterback Nyle Anderson threw finally descended past the goal line Spain was defending, Boldridge came down with the ball and a score.
“That was their only touchdown,” Spain said of the Lions’ 28-10 loss at FSHS on Friday, “and Nyle (who transferred to LHS from Free State), our teammate just a couple months ago, is also my neighbor. For him to throw a touchdown on me, I didn’t like it at all.”
Plays such as that make Spain and fellow corner Bryce Torneden, a sophomore, crazy, because they never want to let their teammates down.
“It definitely drives me,” Spain said of any time he loses a one-on-one matchup.
Such occasions haven’t come up often this season for either Firebirds corner. Spain is tied with Olathe North’s Isaiah Simmons and Shawnee Mission East’s Charlie White for the Sunflower League lead with four interceptions, and Torneden is tied for eighth with two.
As FSHS (8-1, No. 1 seed in Class 6A east bracket) prepares for its Friday playoff opener against Shawnee Mission Northwest (3-6), coach Bob Lisher has a corner tandem on which he can rely.
“They’re not the tallest guys in the world,” Lisher said of Torneden and Spain, both 5-foot-10, “but they make up for it with athletic ability. Each and every week they’ve gotten better, they’ve tightened up their coverage. They were giving up some early, but they were also making some big plays.”
Entering the season, cornerback was one position where FSHS had some question marks because it lost both its 2012 starters. But Torneden and Spain, who first bonded in the summer on rides to and from practice, have helped each other grow. Torneden said they pride themselves on fixing their mistakes and working together.
“Every repetition, we’ve gotta go over it again and think about it. It’s what’s gonna be good for both of us, make us better,” the sophomore corner said.
Sometimes, those conversations and adjustments come on the sideline during a game.
“If we see something new, we want to talk about it so we don’t get burnt,” Torneden said. “You know, that can’t happen.”
FSHS senior free safety Joe Dineen said the defense, which has held opponents to 14.8 points and 96.8 passing yards a game (both third in the league), couldn’t ask for much more out of their first-year starters.
“They have good ball skills,” Dineen said. “They get good jumps and they route-read pretty good.”
Their assimilation came easily, the corners agreed, because senior veterans such as Dineen, Blake Winslow, Keith Loneker, Lucas Werner, Stan Skwarlo, Zach Bickling and Khadre Lane accepted them.
Said Spain: “They make us feel like we’re seniors with them or we belong there. It’s huge shoes to fill, but when it’s all said and done, we do our jobs and it doesn’t feel like we’re too much out of the mix.”
The corners are about to get their first real taste of the playoffs, and their coach said they are capable of replicating the kind of game-changing plays they’ve made all season.
“It only gets tougher,” Lisher said. “They’ve gotta understand that, being young, that you’ve gotta come out with your A-game, and I expect them to do that.”
The duo has combined for 37 solo tackles and seven deflected passes this season, but Torneden said they love picking off passes the most.
“When that ball comes,” he said, “we’ve gotta get it.”