Column: FSHS defense sets tone

Don’t tell Free State High football’s Class of 2014, but the Firebirds’ defense might not miss those guys too much this fall.

Who needs Joe Dineen, Keith Loneker, Blake Winslow, Stan Skwarlo, Zach Bickling and Khadre Lane anyway?

Nothing against those FSHS standouts from last year, but this year’s younger, smaller defense could turn out to be just as effective. Ask their rivals at Lawrence High. Free State rolled to a 31-12 road victory in the City Showdown Friday night because the Firebirds set the tone early on defense.

Senior linebacker Carson Bowen and his undersized accomplices flew to the ball in the first half, stopping quarterback Alan Clothier and his running mates, JD Woods and Trey Moore, before they could even think about starting.

Lawrence’s offense opened the game with four consecutive three-and-outs, failing to pick up a first down until late in the first half. And even on that possession, junior free safety Bryce Torneden upended Clothier on a possible lengthy run, junior linebacker Drew Tochtrop nearly picked off a trick-play pass from Nyle Anderson, and junior linebacker Paul Bittinger popped Clothier for no gain, assuring a first-half shutout for the FSHS defense.

By the end of the night, the Lions (1-2) had 199 total yards and two big-play scores. Still, the Firebirds (2-1) looked like a defense capable of playing with anyone in the Sunflower League.

FSHS coach Bob Lisher knows the 2013 Firebirds had talent few could match on defense, but he said the program is at a point where it should be able to reload without the anguish of rebuilding. In the seasons before current top-line defenders Tochtrop, sophomore linebackers Jay Dineen and Zion Bowlin and Bittinger played on Friday nights, they took their lumps against former stars at FSHS practices.

“They did a nice job going up against those guys last year,” Lisher said, “and now it’s their turn.”

Not everyone on the Free State “D” is new to this. Senior defensive end Shane Hofer, Bowen, senior corners Andrew Keating and Joel Spain and Torneden all played key roles a season ago.

Bowen said the Firebirds show off their speed so readily because defensive coordinator Brett Oberzan has trained them well. And no one on Free State’s defense worried long about putting younger or less experienced players in starting roles.

“Honestly, it’s just all heart,” Bowen said, “all of our guys just wanting to win. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Sophomores Dineen (the younger brother of Joe, now a freshman running back at Kansas University) and Bowlin have impressed their teammates with their work ethic and ability.

When FSHS led just 10-6 in the third quarter, Bowlin recovered a muffed punt that eventually set up a Joe Lane rushing TD, and the Lions never again had a realistic shot at winning the rivalry game.

Torneden said every player on defense is wiling to learn and eager to improve.

“We were still a great defense last year, but I feel like we’re even better this year,” the free safety and starting quarterback said. “We do our job. We’re smaller, so we’re quicker, and we can get through those holes.”

They did so plenty in the second half, too. Senior nose guard Michael Georgie stuffed the smaller, faster Woods on one play, proving even Free State’s defensive linemen could sneak around and accelerate to the ball.

Said Lisher: “The great thing about our guys is they’re playing hard, and they’re not afraid to make mistakes. They’re gonna make some, because they’re young, but they’re playing hard. And if you do that, we’ll reduce the mistakes each and every week.”

And before long, they could have an even better defense than last season, when Free State finished 9-2.