Preps notebook: FSHS football motivated by last year’s playoff loss ahead of rematch with MHS

photo by: Carter Gaskins

Free State quarterback Malik Berry (5) is sacked by Manhattan's David Hernandez (94) during the state playoff quarterfinals Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, at Free State High School.

The scoreboard at Free State remained the same for the duration of the summer.

Visitors 41, Home 19.

It wasn’t until just before the season opener against Olathe West that the scoreboard was finally cleared. It served as a daily reminder of how the 2018 season ended for the Free State football team, an idea that actually came from first-year head coach Kevin Stewart.

Well, that last part is not entirely true.

“The initial thing was that I turned the scoreboard on and it was still up there,” Stewart said. “Nobody had cleared it, so I was like, ‘I’m not going to clear it either.’ It was a little bit motivational, I did that on purpose. But not initially.”

Stewart wasn’t around the program when Free State was handed a 41-19 thumping by Manhattan High in the Class 6A quarterfinals, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that loss lingered throughout the offseason.

The Firebirds finished the year with an 10-1 clip in what turned out to be Bob Lisher’s final year at the helm. Free State now has a chance to avenge last year’s result this week, which comes exactly 364 days after the season-ending defeat.

This time around, FSHS (8-1, No. 3 in Class 6A) will be on the road when it squares off with Manhattan (8-1) at 7 p.m. Friday at Bishop Stadium.

“It leaves a bad taste in my mouth thinking about that game,” senior linebacker Joey Eddis said. “It just hasn’t slipped my mind.”

Senior outside linebacker Wyatt Durland wasn’t on the football team last fall, but he still remembers the loss to Manhattan fondly. He was a member of the student section on a frigid November night.

Durland noticed the significance of the scoreboard on the first day of the summer workouts, mostly because his teammates were talking about it. And he’s sensed a different level of energy this week leading up to the second round of the 6A playoffs.

“This year, it really seems like they are hungry for revenge,” Durland said. “It makes a lot of us want to go harder. You want to go harder for the guys that were here last year and felt that loss.”

Winning the rematch on the road will still be a daunting task for Free State, even if both teams feature a lot of different players.

Running back Kevontae McDonald, who ran for 237 yards and six scores in the game last year, has since graduated from MHS. But the Indians will still lean on a strong ground game and a dominant defense, which has carried them to seven consecutive wins.

Manhattan quarterback Dayne Aschenbrenner has made strides as a passer in his junior campaign, which will keep Free State’s defense from loading the box. On the other side of the ball, the Indians have allowed a total of 21 points over the final three weeks.

On paper, it figures to be a tightly contested battle between two similar squads. But it is the type of game that the Firebirds have been preparing for long before this week.

“It is an opportunity for seniors to get a little bit of revenge,” Stewart said. “But more than that, it is an opportunity to keep our season alive.”

Free State’s probable starters


QB — Malik Berry, sr., and Jet Dineen, so.; RB — Tyler Bowden, jr.; WR — Marcus Preston, sr.; WR — Tae Rainey, sr.; WR — Tate Fanshier, sr.; WR — Ben Stallard, jr..; TE — Daniel Kufahl, jr.; LT — Turner Corcoran, sr.; LG Ryan Lutz, sr.; C — Tyler Gourley, so.; RG — MJ Issa, jr.; RT — Frankie Calderon, sr.


DE — Lovette Epelle, sr.; NT — Tai Newhouse, so.; DT — Devon Buck, sr.; OLB — Joey Eddis, sr.; ILB — Ben Miller, sr.; ILB — Gage Callaghan, jr.; OLB — Wyatt Durland, sr.; CB — Ryley Wheat, jr.; CB — Jacobee Williams, jr.; FS — Carnell Douglas, sr.; SS — Jet Dineen, so.; Kicker — Joey Wood, jr.

photo by: Carter Gaskins

LHS junior running back Devin Neal (4) looks toward his teammates as he celebrates his touchdown with teammate Bryce Smith during a game against Shawnee Mission East Thursday night at Shawnee Mission North Stadium on Sept. 12, 2019.

Bryce Smith enjoying last ride with Lions

Lawrence High senior Bryce Smith couldn’t imagine a better way to end his high school career.

After taking two years off from playing football, Smith is back and enjoying every second of his final season with the Lions. LHS is 8-1 after going 1-8 in 2018, and will be taking on Topeka High (8-1) in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs at 7 p.m. Friday at Hummer Sports Park.

“It has been so much fun,” Smith said. “I couldn’t have asked for it to go better, other than to keep winning. That’s what it is all about now.”

Smith played football from second grade through his freshman year before taking two years off from the gridiron. He was even a member of the boys tennis team last spring for LHS.

But Smith has known he would be returning to football ever since Steve Rampy was introduced as the head coach in January of 2018, even though he didn’t ultimately decide to play during his junior season. Smith, who is the student body president, knew it was only a matter of time before the Lions were going to be back on track under Rampy.

“He spoke to a lot of things that I believe in,” Smith said. “I’m proud to be a Chesty Lion and proud to be here. There is nobody that from Day 1 has embodied that more than (Coach Rampy). It was the right move for me to play my senior year.”

It wasn’t always an easy adjustment for Smith this past offseason. He wasn’t used to lifting weights, and he had to learn a whole new offensive system. He began the summer by getting reps with the junior varsity squad in camps. Still, Smith has managed to make an impact at the varsity level this fall.

Smith provides plenty of strong blocking as a tight end when Lawrence elects to run jumbo personnel packages. Smith has even been a receiving threat at times, snagging multiple touchdowns passes as well.

Most of all, Smith’s play helps illustrate just how LHS has managed to have this impressive turnaround. Every player is doing their part on the football field, regardless of how big or small that role has been.

“He wanted to come out and be a part of this as a senior,” Rampy said. “He’s a great guy, he’s a great school leader. He lives and dies Lawrence High School, so for him to be a part of this is so special. We are all better for having him around.”

Advancing to the Class 6A quarterfinals will not be an easy feat for the Lions. Topeka High is just the latest test for a team that faced plenty already this season.

The Trojans have won five games in a row since their 48-41 loss to Junction City. THS is averaging 46.6 points per game during this win streak behind a strong running game, which is led by a pair of Division I commits in running back Ky Thomas (Minnesota) and quarterback Da’Vonshai Harden (Kansas).

“They are a good, physical team,” Smith said. “It is going to be challenging, but we want to go out and play our game and show them what Lawrence football is all about.”

Lawrence High’s probable starters


QB — Jackson Dooley, jr.; RB — Devin Neal, jr.; WR — Chris McGee, sr.; WR — Deshon Lewis, sr.; WR — Ben King, jr.; WR — Tre’ Jackson, jr.; LT — Noah Smith, so.; LG — Acen Villegas, so.; C — Porter Dannevik, jr.; RG — Lane Luna, jr.; RT — Drew Meyer, jr.


DE — Nick Ray, sr.; NG — Dylan Gillespie, jr.; DE Teagan Flynn, jr.; OLB — Austin Hollins, sr.; OLB — Cole Morris, sr.; ILB — Cole Mondi, jr.; ILB — Shavion Bethea, sr.; CB — Deshon Lewis, sr.; CB — Dre Bridges, sr.; FS — Corban Oberzan, jr.; SS — Kallun Chitama, jr.; Kicker/punter — Connor Gellender, jr.


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