OVERLAND PARK — Heading into Friday’s season opener against Shawnee Mission West, Free State High’s football players were confident in their defense and hoped it would help the offense settle into its comfort zone.
The defense did much more than that, exceeding even their own expectations.
The Firebirds forced four turnovers and provided great field position for their offensive teammates in an eventual 56-9 rout at Shawnee Mission South District Stadium.
Each of the turnovers forced by Free State’s defense resulted in touchdowns on the ensuing offensive possession except when senior Vani Martinez-Vasquez returned a fumble 60 yards for a score in the fourth quarter.
“We weren’t expecting to be that dominant but we were definitely more disciplined than they were and way more physical,” said FSHS senior lineman Spencer Roe, who recorded a sack. “We came out firing off the ball just hot and heavy.”
The Firebirds (1-0) didn’t allow a first down on SM West’s first four offensive series, punishing any player who dared to hold the ball. Those four drives ended in a trio of three-and-out punts and a fumble, all leading to scores and a 28-2 lead in the first 12 minutes.
Sometimes Free State’s top defensive players didn’t want to wait until they lined back up on defense. Senior linebacker David Johnson provided a few crushing hits on the team’s kickoff coverage, setting the tone that there was a price to pay for each yard.
“We just knew we had to come out, hit them in the teeth and show them what our defense is,” said senior lineman Nathan Spain, who grabbed an interception in the second quarter.
Free State’s defense, which held the Vikings (0-1) to 64 yards of total offense in the first half, erased a disastrous start when the Firebirds surrendered a safety on an errant shotgun snap in the first 34 seconds of the game.
But once the Firdbirds’ defense started to make plays, the offense followed. Junior running back Jax Dineen (70 yards, eight carries) scored twice, including a 27-yard touchdown through a hole created by offensive linemen Roe, Jalan Robinson and Ben Holiday.
Senior quarterback Gage Foster, who played running back last year, tossed a pair of touchdowns on back-to-back offensive plays at the end of the first quarter. Foster found senior receiver Jake Rittman on a 37-yard fade pass and connected with junior receiver Keenan Garber on a 43-yard score.
Foster exited at halftime because he “tweaked” his hamstring, according to Free State coach Bob Lisher. In relief, backup quarterback Jordan Preston picked up right where Foster left off. Preston threw a 21-yard touchdown to senior Tanner Cobb and added a three-yard touchdown run following a fumble recovery by sophomore Ben Miller.
“I knew we had an opportunity to be very good defensively,” Lisher said. “We have some speed and we have some guys who are pretty physical. When you do those things and start to do your fundamentals better, you’re going to have a pretty good defense. I think we’re there.”
Jabrandion Douglas added a 46-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, breaking a few tackles on his way to the end zone.
“We knew we were physical coming into it,” Spain said. “We just wanted to show the rest of the state.”
FREE STATE 56, SHAWNEE MISSION WEST 9
FS | SMW
First downs 7 | 9
Rushes-yards 26-182 | 50-135
Passing yards 169 | 34
Total offense 341 | 169
Fumbles-lost 4-3 | 4-3
Penalties-yards 7-80 | 2-15
Score by quarters
Free State 28 0 14 14 — 56
SM West 2 0 0 7 — 9
FS: Jax Dineen 8-70 2 TDs, Gage Foster 3-17, Bo Miller 4-18, Keenan Garber 1-4, Jabrandion Douglas 6-67 TD, Jordan Preston 4-6 TD, Team 1-negative 10.
SMW: Reggie Edwards 7-9, Kirby Grigsby 22-36, Wesley Clark 10-5, Christian Wyatt 1-12, Treyvon Gilyard 10-73.
FS: Foster 4-8—103 2 TDs, Preston 3-4—66 TD.
SMW: Clark 7-13—34 TD and INT.
FS: Jake Rittman 2-53 TD, Garber 1-43 TD, Tanner Cobb 3-49 TD, Jack Theisen 1-24.
SMW: Luke Jones 3-4, Will Humphreys 1-7, Wyatt 2-15 TD, Gullermo Del Campo 1-8.
HOW THEY SCORED
11:26 — Safety. Snap through end zone. (SMW 2, FS 0.)
8:40 — Jax Dineen 27 run. Jake Rittman kick. (FS 7, SMW 2.)
7:16 — Dineen 5 run. Rittman kick. (FS 14, SMW 2.)
4:43 — Rittman 37 pass from Gage Foster. Rittman kick. (FS 21, SMW 2.)
2:57 — Keenan Garber 43 pass from Foster. Rittman kick. (FS 28, SMW 2.)
9:40 — Tanner Cobb 21 pass from Jordan Preston. Rittman kick. (FS 35, SMW 2.)
5:24 — Preston 3 run. Rittman kick. (FS 42, SMW 2.)
10:23 — Vani Martinez-Vasquez 60 fumble recovery. Rittman kick. (FS 49, SMW 2.)
3:09 — Jabrandion Douglas 46 run. Rittman kick. (FS 56, SMW 2.)
0:42 — Christian Wyatt 8 pass from Wesley Clark. Ray Chavez kick. (FS 56, SMW 9.)