Top-ranked Lions get back to work following rare postseason bye

photo by: Chance Parker

Lawrence High senior linebacker Cole Mondi celebrates a sack against the Olathe North Eagles Friday, Oct. 16 at LHS.

A rare postseason bye before a match against the defending state champions might tempt some football teams to take their feet off the gas — but Lawrence High isn’t one of them.

In Friday’s Class 6A quarterfinals, the Lions (9-0, No. 1 in Class 6A), who haven’t played since Oct. 30, will be hosting Derby (6-2, No. 3 in Class 6A). The Panthers, who won the last two state titles, are a formidable opponent, and LHS knows it can’t afford to be rusty.

“At practice, it would be really easy to go 75% because you don’t have a goal (on Friday),” senior linebacker Cole Mondi said. “There are still … other teams. They are getting reps in. So we have to take it to the best of our abilities and go full speed as we can to maintain it.”

Lawrence has been in a similar situation earlier this season, when it was forced to quarantine for two weeks because of a COVID-19 case in the program. The Lions had just two days to practice before facing off against Bishop Carroll, a game they won, 37-28.

But this time around, the Lions have had two whole weeks of practice before their big game. After learning that their second-round foe, Dodge City, was forfeiting the match because of COVID-19 cases on its roster, LHS spent last week working mainly on fundamentals. Senior kicker Connor Gellender said the long period of preparation has made it feel like a true restart.

“It has been a little weird,” Gellender said. “Like coach (Steve Rampy) said, it is like the beginning of the year again and we are ready for our first game.”

On Saturday, LHS learned that Derby would be its next opponent, and the more intensive preparation began.

The Lions haven’t played in a game that was within four touchdowns since Oct. 16, but that almost certainly won’t be the case against Derby. In the Panthers’ 48-28 regional win over Gardner Edgerton last week, they gave up only one touchdown through the first three quarters.

But the Lions are more worried about their own performance than about what the Panthers might do. For as long as Rampy has been at the helm — since the start of the 2018 season — he has encouraged his players to only focus on the things that they can control.

Mondi said the players have had a slogan for the 2020 postseason to remind them of that attitude.

“Our playoff slogan is ‘Be us,’ and that’s exactly what we have to continue to do through these next three games,” Mondi said. “Coach Rampy says it: You have to come to practice with a plan every single day.”

The seniors on this year’s team and the coaching staff came up with the slogan, and Mondi said it speaks to how Lawrence has navigated this wild, weird season.

“When we are playing to each of our best abilities and playing our own game, I think we are at our best,” Mondi said. “We are playing together and moving on all cylinders. When we try to do too much or we are not doing our job, it sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s just ugly.”

Lawrence hasn’t won this many games in a single season since going 10-1 in 2015. And the schedule has been challenging, too — the Lions defeated three ranked teams in a row in October, starting with that win over Bishop Carroll after coming out of quarantine. After that big win, LHS handed St. Thomas Aquinas its first home loss in three years and outlasted Olathe North (No. 2 in Class 6A) with a key defensive stop late in the game. Lawrence then closed out the regular season with its first win over crosstown rival Free State since 2015.

Now, the trick for the Lions will be maintaining that momentum after a week off. Their toughest test yet kicks off at 7 p.m. Friday at home.

“We just have to think about what’s at the end and what’s at stake,” Gellender said. “(We are) playing for each other.”

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