Free State football grateful for chance to play during winless campaign in 2020

photo by: Mike Yoder

Free State quarterback Jet Dineen (12) hands the ball off during a game against Olathe North on Friday Sept. 18, 2020 at FSHS.

Free State football’s 0-6 season ended in the opening round of the playoffs last week, but head coach Kevin Stewart’s biggest takeaway from 2020 had nothing to do with wins or losses.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Free State didn’t even know whether there was going to be a season for much of the summer. The Firebirds had to alter their schedule because of differences in safety precautions from one school district to another, and quarantines shortened their regular season to just five games.

So the second-year head coach said his team knows that the opportunity to play at all “is an experience that we can’t take for granted.”

“High school football is a great experience,” Stewart told the Journal-World on Thursday. “This year, we really learned that we have to appreciate the things that we are given and be grateful for those things.”

Free State’s schedule woes started at the very beginning of the season, when it had to adjust after schools in Olathe postponed the start of fall sports. Then, in the second week of the season, an opponent backed out as a precautionary move after the Free State program saw its first positive case of COVID-19.

And in October, some Free State players came into close contact with someone with a positive case during a game in Johnson County. As a result, the entire Free State team was forced to quarantine for two weeks before returning to face Lawrence High (No. 1 in Class 6A) in the regular-season finale.

All the stopping and starting prevented the Firebirds from ever getting into a rhythm, which did them no favors in a schedule that included four ranked teams. FSHS lost each of its last five contests by at least 21 points.

But the scoreboard doesn’t tell the whole story, especially in Free State’s 42-21 loss to second-seeded Junction City in the opening round of the Class 6A playoffs. FSHS managed to hold its own in the first half, taking the lead twice with touchdown runs from Jacobee Williams and Jet Dineen. The Firebirds faltered in the second half, but the first half was a real sign of progress, even if it happened to come in the final game of the year.

“The first half against Junction City went really well, and we just had a few big plays in the third quarter that broke our spirit,” Stewart said. “If we had three more games, then maybe we would have had these guys that are juniors ready to play a high-level game against Junction City. You just forget that the way you get better is by playing games.”

Dineen, a junior, provided plenty of production for the Firebirds during his first full season as the starting quarterback. He finished with 672 rushing yards and four scores on 127 attempts. He also went 35-for-93 through the air for 427 yards, with four touchdowns and five interceptions.

“If you extrapolate that to a nine-game season, Jet is probably going to run for 1,000 and throw for 1,000, which is not a terrible season for a junior for his first year starting,” Stewart said. “You also take into consideration that the teams we played were some of the top teams in the state. Those are some of the things that are cut short with this weird season.”

Williams, who mostly played outside linebacker, also helped on the offensive side of the ball during his senior season. He finished with 230 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 37 attempts.

Junior Dash Cleveland was sidelined for multiple games with an injury but still recorded 190 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 41 attempts. Junior Elijah Harshaw added 30 carries for 144 yards on the ground.

Leading the receiving unit was junior Jake Patchen, who had 18 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns. And junior Manny Epelle caught six balls for 86 yards and one score.

On defense, junior Tai Newhouse led with 30.5 tackles, including 23 solo stops. Jordan Wells had a strong senior season with 29.5 tackles and two pass breakups. Junior Quez Lee posted 25 tackles (19 solo), and senior Ben Stallard tallied 24 tackles (19 solo). Williams and senior Gage Callaghan finished with 22 and 20 tackles, respectively.

Senior kicker Joey Wood also converted on two of his three field goal attempts and went 10-for-13 on point-after attempts.

Stewart was grateful for the work the team put in day in and day out.

“Our kids really showed up with a great attitude every day,” Stewart said. “They didn’t quit; they didn’t complain. They were positive throughout this experience, and they supported each other. I think that really showed their true character.”

While the seniors will be missed, the Firebirds also realize they have many veterans coming back for 2021.

“We will return a lot of experience from this year,” Stewart said. “These juniors made up over 50% of our starters. They were playing really good teams as juniors, so hopefully that pays dividends in the future.”

That also means Free State is wasting no time in starting its offseason schedule. FSHS will start its weight-lifting routine on Monday, which is earlier than the team usually starts putting in the work for the following year.

With hard work, Stewart said, the next Free State team should be able to compete with some of the most elite teams in Kansas.

“The teams we faced were some of the top teams in the Sunflower League,” Stewart said. “It gave us an opportunity to compare ourselves of where we are at as a program or individuals. We are not far off.”

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