As far as Free State High football coach Bob Lisher is concerned, his team suffered the consequences of playing with fire.
The Firebirds’ offense had far too many shortcomings early on, in an Oct. 3 road loss to Olathe North. First of all, FSHS couldn’t get its passing game going. Senior quarterback Joe Dineen had eight incompletions in his first 12 passes before finishing 21-for-37, with 224 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the 26-19 loss, the team’s only setback this season.
Then came the costly, drive-stalling penalties: a false start and a chop block. It all added up to a 13-0 lead for the Eagles, whom Free State will see again tonight at Olathe District Activity Center — kickoff at 7 — in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs.
“It just killed our momentum early on. Plus, the fact that they’re a heck of a defense,” Lisher said. “If you make those kinds of mistakes against a great defense, then you’re really asking for trouble. And we did.”
Since that game, the Eagles’ defense has played even better. Though high-scoring Gardner-Edgerton put up 29 points to beat O-North on Oct. 25, the Eagles have surrendered a combined 10 points in their other four games, all wins. In the first round last week, they held Blue Valley Northwest (a team that averaged 26 points a game this season) to three.
“Their front six guys, they just dominate the line of scrimmage,” Lisher said, pointing to defensive end Josh Moore and linebacker Jimmie Swain (a TCU commit). “The three down guys are creating havoc and everybody else is cleaning it up.”
In fact, the Eagles’ pass-rush led to most of Free State’s offensive issues. Lisher has made it clear to his players this week that they will have to control O-North’s defensive linemen tonight if they want to have a chance.
“That’s where it starts,” the coach said. “They’re pretty good. It’s gonna be tough.”
Though FSHS scored 19 against O-North, it got one of its touchdowns on defense, when linebacker Blake Winslow picked off a pass and returned it 77 yards. Linebacker Keith Loneker said the Firebirds realize they need their offense to click in order to advance to the state semifinals for the second season in a row.
“It’ll be hard,” Loneker said. “Their stats show they’re one of the top defenses ... The offense needs to come from the start.”
It isn’t often that Free State (31.4 points a game) has to worry about its offensive output, but the Eagles’ offensive weapons — running back Venus Triplett, quarterback Cole Murphy and tight end Moore — are so dangerous that FSHS can’t afford to fall behind again, Loneker said.
“The biggest thing is coming out hot,” the receiver and linebacker said. “We haven’t really done that. Psychologically, we really need to think about coming out hot.”
This week at practices, as the Firebirds mentally prepared for the rematch, junior defensive end Shane Hofer said they embraced the idea of returning to the site of their only loss.
“We want to prove that we’re the better team. That’s our goal,” Hofer said. “We know all the players. We know what they like to do. We’ve already played them and seen so much film on them, and they’ve gotten a lot better and we’ve gotten a lot better. It’ll be a much different game, but our goal is to come out and get some revenge and try to be the better team.”
FSHS probable starters
LT — Scott Frantz, jr.
LG — Coleman Houk, jr.
C — Reid Buckingham, sr.
RG — Tyler Sampson, sr.
RT — Shane Hofer, jr.
QB — Joe Dineen, sr.
RB — Stan Skwarlo, sr.
TE — Zach Bickling, sr.
WR — Khadre Lane, sr.
WR — Lucas Werner, sr.
WR — Keith Loneker, sr.
DE — Khadre Lane, sr.
NT — Josiah LeBrun, jr.
DE — Zach Bickling, sr.
OLB — Stan Skwarlo, sr.
MLB — Lucas Werner, sr.
ILB — Keith Loneker, sr.
LB — Blake Winslow, sr.
OLB — Carson Bowen, jr.
CB — Joel Spain, jr.
CB — Bryce Torneden, so.
FS — Joe Dineen, sr.