The party is over for Free State High’s football team. In fact, the guys in charge squashed it before it had a chance to start.
Now that the Firebirds have earned the No. 1 spot in Class 6A, coach Bob Lisher has helped them realize how little that achievement will mean when the opening kickoff comes against Olathe North, at 7 tonight at Olathe District Activity Center. It will be televised live on Metro Sports (available locally on WOW! channel 37).
The Firebirds (4-0, ranked No. 1 by Kpreps.com) are coming off a 35-14 victory over defending 6A champion Shawnee Mission West. But O-North, any coach in the Sunflower League would testify, is far better than its 2-2 record. So this, Lisher and his coaches have preached, is no time to feel good about the past.
“Keeping our heads focused on the task at hand and playing hard is key,” Lisher said. “The short week (playing on Thursday) doesn’t help, but we’ve still got to show up and play.”
Senior right guard and defensive end Tyler Sampson said the players have handled the cram sessions well.
“It definitely has been more of a fast-paced, intense practice,” Sampson said. “We have to get a lot more stuff in in a short amount of time … and have adapted to change. We’ve worked just as fast as we’ve needed to work.”
That’s a good thing, because the Eagles have two of the most explosive offensive weapons in the Sunflower League: junior running back Venus Tripplett (413 rushing yards, seven touchdowns) and quarterback junior Cole Murphy (614 passing yards, 372 rushing yards, 11 total touchdowns).
Murphy didn’t play against FSHS last season, and it still took a last-minute score for the Firebirds to win. Lisher said Murphy gets to work behind a big offensive line that could create problems for the Firebirds if they’re not careful.
“He’s much, much faster than he was last year on film and a lot stronger and bigger,” Lisher said. “And, of course, Venus Triplett broke off some long runs against us last year, so we know all about him.”
FSHS senior linebacker and receiver Blake Winslow said Triplett is probably the best running back in the league, and the Firebirds must find a way to keep him from busting long runs. However, there is a trick to pulling that off.
“We can’t focus too much on Triplett,” Winslow said, “because Murphy is just as good of a runner in open space.”
The Firebirds, Winslow added, know O-North is a couple of plays away from being unbeaten, too. The Eagles lost, 10-7, to Olathe South and 23-22 against Shawnee Mission East.
“They’ve lost two close games,” Winslow said, “and the last one they had, like, a seven-yard touchdown called back that would have won it.”
O-North, like Free State, runs a lot of option sets out of its spread formations. FSHS senior quarterback Joe Dineen (575 passing yards, 360 rushing yards, 14 total touchdowns) wreaks havoc on opposing defenses every week. So Lisher hopes his players know what they are up against.
“It could help us. It could help them, too,” the coach said of the similar offenses. “It just comes down to who can execute and not make the mistakes that get you in trouble.”
Sampson said FSHS should be prepared for O-North.
“We’ve always had a kind of high-caliber defense. We’re kind of built around that,” the defensive end said. “The defense has been good, so we plan on stopping them the way we’ve stopped every team, and that’s hitting them hard and hitting them fast.”
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 — Tyler Sampson, 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 — Khadre Lane, sr.
CB — Joel Spain, jr.
CB — Bryce Torneden, so.
FS — Joe Dineen, sr.