Free State High’s football players don’t need any reminders of their slow starts in the past two seasons, which included a 1-2 record to open last year and an 0-3 mark in 2015.
Those slow starts have served as a reminder to upperclassmen to raise the intensity in practices and add some urgency to their season opener against Shawnee Mission West at 7 p.m. tonight at SM South District Stadium.
“Obviously we’ve discussed it a little bit and the guys don’t want to start out that way,” Free State coach Bob Lisher said. “But we’ve got pretty tough competition at the start of the season. It’s not going to be an easy task. I think our guys understand that.”
Senior Gage Foster, who will start at quarterback and linebacker, said sometimes there’s too much of an emphasis on past seasons whether it’s slow starts or the team’s streak of three consecutive appearances to the Class 6A state semifinals.
At the start of practices in August, Foster said the seniors had to pull the team together to talk about improving their play.
“We kind of slacked a couple of days,” Foster said, “and our seniors got together with everybody and we’re like, ‘This is not us. This isn’t Free State football. Young guys, we know you haven’t been here, but we have to stick together.’”
The Firebirds believe their defense can be one of the best in the Sunflower League this season. Even if they don’t have many returning starters, nearly all of them have at least a few games of varsity experience.
Linebacker should be one of the deepest position groups with seniors Foster, David Johnson and Bo Miller starting alongside junior Jalen Nash.
“Our D-line is really good, too,” Johnson said. “(Nathan) Spain is really good, Spencer Roe, Turner (Corcoran), all those guys. When they do their jobs, we’re a really good defense.”
Shawnee Mission West edged the Firebirds in last year’s season opener, 41-40. The Vikings, who finished with a 6-4 record, return at least five starters on both sides of the ball, including all-Sunflower League offensive lineman Byron Sherwin and defensive lineman Terrion Brewer.
Running back Kirby Grigsby will be one of the top offensive players after leading SM West with 10 rushing touchdowns in 2016.
“Their kids are tough,” Lisher said. “They are physical and they’ve got some skill. As usual, it’s going to be a tough opener.”
For the Firebirds, they are confident that they are an improved team from last season and hope it shows immediately in their first game.
“Defensively we’re much further along as far as being able to do assignments, run to the football, feel comfortable doing it," Lisher said. "Offensively, we’re still not there. But hopefully the defense can keep us in the game while we get our offense rolling.”
FSHS probable starters
LT — Turner Corcoran, so.
LG — Shane Skwarlo, jr.
C — Ben Holiday, jr.
RG — Spencer Roe, sr.
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 — Oliver Paranjothi, jr.
CB — Gabe del Valle, sr.
S — Malik Berry, so.
S — Keenan Garber, jr.