Opposing sideline: Lawrence High vs. Derby Q&A preview with Derby Informer

photo by: Nathan Alspaw/Derby Informer

Derby senior Lem Wash breaks free for a run during a 48-10 win over Maize South on Oct. 23, 2020. Lawrence High is slated to host Derby in a quarterfinal matchup this Friday at 7 p.m. at LHS. Photo courtesy of Nathan Alspaw of the Derby Informer.

Make no mistake, the Derby football program remains the team to beat in Class 6A until proven otherwise.

Lawrence High (9-0, No. 1 in Class 6A) enters Friday’s quarterfinal matchup with Derby (6-2, No. 3 in Class 6A) as the higher-ranked team and has the better record. But the Panthers, who are the No. 4 seed in the Class 6A West, are coming off back-to-back state titles.

Kickoff for this matchup is slated for 7 p.m. at LHS. This will be the first road playoff game for Derby since Nov. 17, 2017. The winner between top-seeded Lawrence and Derby will face either No. 2 Junction City or No. 3 Wichita East next week with a trip to the state title game on the line.

Derby has advanced to the previous five state championship games, winning four state titles in the process while also claiming one runner-up finish in 2017. Dating back to the start of the 2015 postseason, DHS has won 25 of its 26 playoff matchups.

More than that, the Panthers have completely dominated during this impressive run. They have outscored their opponents by a combined 740 points over their previous 26 playoff contests, which includes an +82 margin so far this postseason. DHS surrendered three touchdowns with the game out of reach in the fourth quarter of its 48-28 win over Gardner-Edgerton last week.

Derby’s 20-point win last time out was its closest margin of victory in the playoffs since the 2018 state title game, which was a 24-16 win over Blue Valley North. Of Derby’s last 25 playoff victories, a total of 17 of them have been by at least 20 points.

This week’s game figures to be closer than that, though. In fact, it is reminiscent of 2017 when Derby was the No. 5 seed and traveled up this way in an eventual 55-49 overtime win over Free State. It is actually just the second time in the last five years that DHS isn’t the top seed in the Class 6A West.

After back-to-back undefeated seasons, Derby suffered a 45-14 loss to Mill Valley (No. 2 in Class 5A) in the season opener. DHS then dropped a 36-35 decision to Maize (No. 4 in Class 5A) on Oct. 16, but has since won three games in a row.

To get a better understanding of the Panthers, though, let’s get an inside perspective from Adam Suderman, sports and digital news editor of the Derby Informer. Here is a Q&A with him ahead of a highly-anticipated matchup:

After back-to-back undefeated seasons, Derby has lost two games in 2020. What is your overall assessment on how this season has gone for the Panthers?

Adam Suderman: Finding consistency is the phrase that has come up repeatedly this fall. That’s especially true for a defense that replaced seven starters. The program saw that inexperience in its 45-14 loss to Mill Valley. It was its biggest loss since falling 50-20 to Goddard in September 2017.

The loss itself wasn’t shocking, but the lopsided result began raising some questions for the rest of 2020. Over time, even after a 36-35 loss to Maize on Oct. 16, confidence has swung back in its favor and Derby has easily played its best football since that loss last month.

Derby has scored at least 35 points in all but one game. What makes this offense successful and who are some key players to watch?

Suderman: Even as a first-year starter and a sophomore, Derby hasn’t taken a step back with running back Dylan Edwards. He is approaching 1,300 yards and has scored three touchdowns in each of the last four games. 4.43 speed doesn’t hurt either. After scoring 27 touchdowns in just seven games as a first-year starter, quarterback Lem Wash had five interceptions plague him early as a senior. In his last three games, he has been nearly perfect (20-of-23, 324 yards, 6 TD, 0 INT, 1 FUM).

You have to also give credit to an offensive line (averages 6-2, 273) that has progressed significantly through the fall. Derby coaches are thrilled because there are three returning starters in the group and there are still zero seniors. Junior left tackle Alex Key (6-4, 270) has generated the most buzz, garnering interest from Iowa State, Kansas and North Dakota State.

Panthers haven’t given up much when their starters are in the game over their last three outings. How has the defense looked as of late and who are some key players to watch on that side of the ball?

Suderman: I simply can’t overstate the value of Derby’s linebacker corps. Three of the four are returning starters, including Coleson Syring, Jack Hileman and Luke Stewart. At 6-2, 235, Syring has given Derby a physical advantage at middle linebacker. While only 5-9, 200, Hileman was two tackles away from leading the team last fall and holds the advantage through eight games. Stewart has become the jack of all trades. He can put his hand in the dirt, stuff the run and even drop back in pass coverage.

Senior safety Tanner Knox missed each of Derby’s games before its quarantine, but has given it a big boost in its secondary. A brand-new defensive line has been its biggest question mark, but the group has shown improvement each week.

It is a rare road playoff game for Derby this week. How do you see the matchup with Lawrence High playing out on Friday and what will be the key to Derby winning this week?

Suderman: I believe Derby’s best defense may be its offense. In its three best performances this fall, Bishop Carroll (35-21), Maize South (48-10) and Gardner-Edgerton (48-28), its ability to strike quickly has put its opponents on its heels. None of these opponents scored an offensive touchdown until the fourth quarter. The postseason is a confidence test and that applies to belief in coaches and players, but also that you belong on the biggest stage. November football is a grind and Derby has firmly entrenched itself, winning 21 of 22 in the month since 2015.

Still Suderman: While Lawrence is a vastly improved team and likely is the best team Derby has played thus far, can it play four-quarter football against the defending back-to-back state champions? I think coach Steve Rampy’s crew is capable, but until someone steps in Derby’s way and breaks its five-year run of playing for a title, I like its odds of getting a road win and heading to substate on Nov. 20.


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