Back Again: Firebirds ready to face Derby in third straight postseason

Free State junior linebacker David Johnson chases after Derby running back Brody Kooser (1) during the Class 6A state semifinals on Friday at Panther Stadium.

Nearly every day in the offseason, Free State’s football players were reminded of their latest loss to Derby. It was used as a source of motivation in the weight room. Derby’s players were improving, so they had to do the same.

Senior linebacker David Johnson, along with some other players, made sure it was always close to his mind. He set the screensaver on the background of his phone to read: “49-21.” The final score of the last time he lost a football game.

“It’s just something you always kind of have in the back of your mind,” Johnson said. “They ended your season, and the feeling you had after that game.”

For the third straight season, Free State will meet Derby, the two-time defending Class 6A state champions, in the state playoffs. The postseason trilogy will continue at 7 tonight at FSHS in the quarterfinals.

The Firebirds haven’t advanced to the state championship game since 2008, ending the last two seasons in the state semifinals against Derby.

“Just driving home, we didn’t want to get on the bus and be like, ‘Next year,'” senior linebacker and quarterback Gage Foster said of the 163-mile ride back to Lawrence. “We were upset about it and we should’ve been. That next week, we went back to grinding.”

In practice, the top-seeded Firebirds (10-0) have done their best to raise their intensity this week. Coach Bob Lisher said one of the most important things for his team is to remain focused for an entire 48 minutes when the ball is kicked off.

“Usually before practice, coach describes it as recess sometimes with the younger guys,” Johnson said. “Derby week, no one is screwing around. It’s do your assignments and do them well.”

The fifth-seeded Panthers (9-1) have won 32 of their last 33 games, losing in Week Two to unbeaten Goddard, the top seed in Class 5A. Dual-threat quarterback Hunter Igo leads the offense, recording 114 rushing yards and 141 passing yards in a win over Manhattan last week.

Defensively, Derby hasn’t allowed an opponent to score more than 20 points in its last five games.

“They are running the ball more this year than they have in the past, where it’s been kind of even run-pass,” Lisher said. “But they are still throwing the ball accurately. … Defensively, we’re going to have our hands full, no doubt about it.”

For the Firebirds, they began preparing for the chance to play in big games during the summer. Whether it was Derby or anyone else, the goal remained of finding a way to the state championship game.

“Every rep in the weight room this summer,” senior tight end Jack Theisen said, “has been thinking, ‘We have to beat Derby. We have to get to the next level. We have to get to the championship.'”

During the playoffs, Free State players weren’t overlooking opponents but they kept an eye on Derby, knowing the possibility of a third straight matchup.

“It wouldn’t have felt the same without playing Derby in the playoffs,” Johnson said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

FSHS probable starters


LT — Turner Corcoran, so.

LG — Gabe Clark, sr.

C — Nathan Spain, sr.

RG — Shane Skwarlo, jr.

RT — Jalan Robinson, sr.

QB — Gage Foster, sr.

RB — Jax Dineen, jr.

H — L.J. Mack, jr.

WR — Tanner Cobb, sr.

WR — Jake Rittman, sr.

TE — Jack Theisen, sr.

K — Kameron Lake, jr.

P — Jake Rittman, sr.


DT — Lovette Epelle, so.

NT — Nathan Spain, sr.

DT — Spencer Roe, sr.

OLB — Bo Miller, sr.

ILB — David Johnson, sr.

ILB — Jalen Nash, jr.

OLB — Gage Foster, sr.

CB — Kwinton Lassiter, sr.

CB — Gabe del Valle, sr.

S — Malik Berry, so.

S — Keenan Garber, jr.