Another round of Lawrence High-Derby football sparks memories from the past

Lawrence quarterback Truman Juelsgaard (7) hands off a ball to Shance Wilkerson (3) in a game against Manhattan on Friday night. The Lions led 21-14 at the half.

For the second year in a row, deep in the Class 6A playoffs, the Lawrence High Lions find perennial powerhouse Derby standing in the way of their dreams of a state championship.

But this Lawrence-Derby clash is not some kind of new adventure.

Long before LHS developed its spirited rivalry with Free State, it was Derby green that got the Lions’ blood boiling.

For three consecutive seasons back in the mid-1990s, Lawrence High and Derby met in the final game of the season with a state championship on the line.

LHS won two of the three, including the last one in 1995, which remains the most recent state football title this city has seen.

In fact, this week’s trip to the state semifinals is the Lions’ first since 2005.

As much as he was a huge part of the Lions lore of the 1990s, this week’s meeting with Derby — 7 p.m. Friday night at DHS — will mark the first time that LHS coach Clint Bowen has faced the Panthers.

That’s not to say he’s not aware of what Derby is about. For the better part of the last 20 years, Bowen, as a college assistant, spent plenty of time recruiting the Derby program. He knows what football means to that place. And he knows what it means to LHS, as well. That’s what makes this clash so much fun and so important for the Lions.

“This whole run has been the first step in us becoming the program we want to be and getting back to what’s expected around here,” Bowen said Monday. “I think it’s built confidence in our players that our program is operating in a fashion that works.”

Just four players — Evan Bannister, Truman Juelsgaard, Noah Smith and Acen Villegas — played significant snaps during last year’s 40-7 home loss to Derby in the 6A quarterfinals. So, the experience will be largely new for Bowen’s roster.

But it’s games like this, and opportunities like these, that can be remembered forever. And Bowen will spend the better part of this week getting his guys fired up for the challenge by both honoring the past and pointing to the future.

Here are a few notable numbers associated with this rivalry between two of the most dominant programs the state has ever seen.

LHS has won 10 6A state titles since the state went to six classes in 1978, including a stretch of five straight from 1989-1993. The Lions also have made 13 appearances in the 6A title game during that same time. LHS appeared in 10 consecutive 6A title games from 1986 to 1995, winning eight.

Derby has won seven 6A state titles, including the last three and five of the last six. It would be six straight, from 2015-2020, if not for Blue Valley North’s 49-42 victory in the 6A title game in 2017.

The Panthers also have made 11 appearances in the 6A state title game in the past 28 years, and added a 12th back in 1975 while finishing runner-up in Class 4A.

In 1993, Derby led LHS 23-0 at halftime in Manhattan and watched the Lions storm back in the second half to win 27-23 in one of the greatest postseason performances by an LHS team in school history.

One year later, the two schools met again, this time in Lawrence, and Derby got its revenge, winning 21-0.

How did the 1995 Lions respond to that? By shutting out the Panthers 20-0 in the state title game the very next season at KU’s Memorial Stadium.

There is no title on the line this time. The growth of schools in the eastern portion of the state has forced both LHS and Free State to move to the west side of the bracket in recent years.

But the winner will get a chance to play for a title. And that’s something that both of these programs know plenty about, even if the players who will actually be playing on Friday night weren’t around for any of it.

Semifinal Send-Off

Lawrence High football supporters have organized a send-off for the team on Friday afternoon along 21st Street.

Fans are encouraged to arrive around 1 p.m., bringing posters, friends, family members and all the school spirit they can muster. Those in attendance will be asked to line the street from the LHS parking lot heading west, which will follow the route the LHS buses will take on their way to Derby.

The Lions are scheduled to depart at 1:30 p.m. Kickoff for the Class 6A state semifinal game between LHS and Derby is slated for 7 p.m.

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