Eleven Free State soccer players walked on to the field for their home opener against De Soto on Monday, but there was a 12th Firebird that helped fuel them to a 5-4 overtime victory over the Wildcats.
Prior to the match, the Firebirds (2-0) had a moment of silence and released red and blue balloons for Keith Loneker Sr., who died in June after a bout with cancer. His son, Keith Jr., and daughter, Kylee, were honorary captains for the Firebirds.
"It means a lot. There are a lot of great things with coach (Kelly) Barah," Loneker Jr., who is a Free State alumnus and linebacker on the Kansas football team, said. "I truly believe a lot of the stuff that he does you don't see around. Coming back and being a part of the Free State atmosphere and the people here is what it was like when I was here. There are just a lot of great people, so I'm very honored to be back here."
Free State soccer vs. De Soto
The Free State boys soccer team honored the late Keith Loneker Sr., and outlasted De Soto for a 5-4 overtime victory in its home opener on Monday.
Loneker Jr. felt his father's presence in the Firebirds' victory with how they were able to battle through adversity. The Firebirds held leads of 2-0 and 3-1 only to see them disappear, and found themselves trailing, 4-3, with 11 minutes remaining after Andrew Goodman gave the Wildcats their first lead. However, senior Charlie Newsome found the back of the net with just under five minutes remaining to tie it up, and sophomore Pete Junge's header in the early stages of overtime sealed the Firebirds' victory.
Junge was on the other end of a ball played through the middle, and was able to push it past De Soto goalie Blake Webber before they collided and hit the turf. The Free State sophomore came away with a busted lip, which was very clear as he still flashed a big smile while being hugged by his teammates a few minutes later.
"I saw him play it through and I just did what I had to do just for Keith and for the team since we were all playing so hard and we all just wanted to win so bad," Junge said. "So I just decided to put everything on the line, and we ended up winning."
Barah, who was close friends with the late Loneker Sr., had a difficult time putting it into words how much it meant to get a victory on the special night. The Free State coach was reminded of Loneker Sr.'s tenacity as he watched Junge's game-winner develop.
"That last goal is a Keith Loneker kind of play right there. The kid sacrificed his body and really didn't care," Barah said. "It was all about the team. It was a lot of grit. It was a lot of effort. It was everything Keith was about."
Loneker Sr. was well known for his impact on youth in the Lawrence area, and how he was able to get the best out of athletes. The Firebirds felt that same fatigue of a Loneker Sr. workout, as cramping was an issue for players such as Newsome in the second half. Newsome gave the Firebirds a 2-0 halftime lead, but the third goal alluded him for much of the second half. The Free State senior missed three free kicks from 20-30 yards out in the second half, and had a couple of breakaway opportunities that he was unable to put between the pipes.
Newsome acknowledged that, "It would have just felt wrong if we would have come out here not with a win," following the match, and would not be denied of his hat trick with Loneker Sr. on the forefront of his mind.
"He was always out here helping out kids and was just a great-spirited guy. He always put a smile on my face," Newsome said. "I'm actually Barah's god son and him and Barah were best friends. Just seeing how much he meant to Barah, you could just know how good of a person he was through that."
Leading the comeback for the Wildcats (2-3) were Ethan Rodriguez and Daniel Apple, who have both recorded hat tricks of their own this season. Rodriguez put the Wildcats on the board early in the second half, and Apple answered Ashton Owen's goal to pull De Soto within 3-2. As the missed opportunities continued to mount for the Firebirds, Carson Brier tied it up before Goodman gave the Wildcats the lead.
Without a functioning scoreboard, the Firebirds weren't sure of how much time they had to find an equalizer following Goodman's goal, but losing wasn't in the question for Newsome.
"There's stuff every game that you just have to get out of your mind and just focus on the game. You can't be worried about all of the chances you miss," Newsome said. "That's what the fans do. When they're cheering for you, you forget right about it and just go to the next play."
Following the match, the fans poured out on to the field as they traditionally do — win or loss — for the Firebirds' spirit circle. Loneker Jr. was a part of the circle and got to share with the Firebirds how special the night was to him and his family.
"It was great to see what my dad embodied and what he taught, which was never give up and keep on pushing," Loneker Jr. said. "Today was picture perfect of what it was. You go into overtime and the team that you know is the toughest is going to win, so it was just great to see that."
The Firebirds will have a quick turnaround for their next match, which is at 7 tonight at Leavenworth.