Commitment to special teams a key part to Lawrence’s undefeated season entering quarterfinals
Perhaps more than any other team in the state, Lawrence High’s football program understands the importance of special teams.
The Lions have had a lot of success in that department during a 9-0 start to the 2020 campaign. They have blocked a number of punts, taken kickoffs all the way to the house, and provided tremendous coverage on both punts and kickoffs this year.
It is a key reason why LHS (No. 1 in Class 6A) is undefeated ahead of its quarterfinal matchup with Derby (6-2, No. 3 in Class 6A), which is slated to take place at 7 p.m. Friday at LHS.
“We here like to count it as one-third of the entire game,” said senior Connor Gellender, who is the team’s special teams captain. “It is very important to us.”
That level of commitment to such an important facet of the game really starts with Gellender.
Gellender serves as both the team’s kicker and punter. He is 1-for-2 on field goal attempts and has made all but three point-after-attempts. In fact, the only PATs he has missed are due to the opposing team getting past the line and blocking the kick.
More than that, though, Gellender’s work ethic is what drives this special teams unit. He is constantly working on his craft on the sideline during practice, kicking over 100 balls on a regular basis. Gellender doesn’t let any of his teammates ever help him set up his kicking station either.
“Connor works his tail off every single day,” senior Cole Mondi said. “He keeps us all calm when things get out of hand. That’s why he’s a captain. We can look up to him.”
A big reason why Gellender is so committed is because of his own background and his personal aspirations.
Gellender’s father, Tad Gellender, was a kicker in his high school playing career before eventually going to play at Pittsburg State University. So Tad started teaching his son when he was in sixth grade, and it is the only thing Connor Gellender has known since.
Gellender currently has an offer to kick at Hutchinson Community College and hopes to continue playing football at the next level.
“It’s just my first love,” Gellender said. “I’ve just always kicked really.”
Gellender, who transferred from Free State before his junior season, has held down the position at LHS over the last two years. He’s since learned the importance of directionally kicking on kickoffs since being with the Lions.
“We like to think directional kicking is the way to go because it cuts down the field in half,” Gellender said. “It really hurts the return team because now they have less yardage.”
It also helps that the Lions use several key players on special teams and that multiple assistant coaches are responsible for a different aspect of that unit.
“For a lot of teams, I think it is a play off,” Mondi said. “But we try to get all of our best athletes on the field all the time. If we can put our offense or defense in a good position to be successful, that’s all we need.”
The Lions have certainly done that this year. Lawrence made three key plays on special teams in its 66-6 win over Wichita North in the postseason opener. Senior Kallun Chitama delivered a 63-yard kickoff return, while the Lions also recorded two safeties on punt coverage plays.
Lawrence has been especially impressive at blocking punts throughout the season. The most notable play occurred in a win over Bishop Carroll, when seniors Karson Green and Graham Hough simply overpowered the protection and got to the punter before he fired off a kick.
Hough ended up recovering the loose ball for a touchdown in an eventual 37-28 win, but it was a sequence that has happened on multiple occasions for the Lions. Jeff Colter is the assistant responsible for this particular unit, and he does a great job at putting his players in the right position to get a good shot at the punter.
Senior safety Corban Oberzan is consistently in the right place on punt blocks. Senior Jack Stoll, junior Evan Bannister, Green, Hough and Mondi all have a knack for creating pressure on the punter as well.
“You are looked very highly on if you block a punt,” Mondi said. “It is a complete effort play. That’s the coolest part about the special teams unit.”
When the punt does manage to get off, though, returners Chitama, senior Tre’ Jackson and sophomore Sam Sedo all have the ability to pick up important yardage to put the offense in favorable field position.
Derby has won four of the last five state titles, including back-to-back state crowns, entering this week’s matchup. But a big special teams play could go a long way in helping LHS knock off the defending champs.