Behind special senior class, Lions developed ‘expectation of winning’ during 9-1 campaign

photo by: Carter Gaskins

Lawrence High senior Devin Neal (4) celebrates his touchdown with teammate Ben King (17) Friday night at St. Thomas Aquinas. The Lions handed the Saints their first home loss since 2017.

Lawrence High’s football season might have ended on a low note this year — with a loss to Derby in the Class 6A quarterfinals — but coach Steve Rampy says that shouldn’t take away from all the team accomplished in 2020.

The Lions went 9-1 during Rampy’s third year at the helm, in a year when many other teams had their seasons significantly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. They were ranked No. 1 for most of the year and had a serious argument for being one of the better teams in Kansas. And their stellar senior class filled up the highlight reels with big plays against some of the state’s strongest opponents.

“This team will not be defined by the last week,” Rampy said. “They accomplished some great things, and we are a lot better football program than we were three years ago. But we still have a long way to go.”

When Rampy was first named LHS’ head coach, he told the team in his introductory meeting that his favorite day to practice was Thanksgiving, because that would mean his team had survived long enough to play in the state championship game. And for much of 2020, the Lions looked like they might be able to make that vision come true and secure their first state title since 1995.

Then, Derby came to town and secured a 40-20 win over LHS in the Class 6A quarterfinals. The Panthers, who have won back-to-back state titles, defeated Junction City in the semifinals to earn their sixth-straight trip to the state championship game.

Rampy said the loss served as a reminder that LHS still has room to grow as a program.

“I think they developed an expectation of winning,” Rampy said. “I think they expected to win. The hardest part is playing well when the other team expects to win. That’s the next step we have to take.”

But the loss to Derby doesn’t change the fact that in all of the Lions’ other games, their “expectation of winning” proved correct. And the fact that the Lions got to play in as many games as they did during the COVID-19 pandemic also counts as a success. Only two games fell through — for one of them, LHS was in quarantine, and for the other, a postseason opponent that was dealing with its own COVID-19 concerns chose to forfeit.

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The 2020 season also provided plenty of opportunities for the Lions’ sensational senior class to shine.

The seniors played a major role in making Rampy’s program a powerhouse. Lawrence posted a 1-8 record in 2018, Rampy’s first year, but the program has been a juggernaut ever since, going 17-3 over the past two seasons. So when LHS held an end-of-the-year meeting on Tuesday, the coaching staff took the opportunity to thank the seniors for laying the groundwork for so many wins.

“They talked about how we kind of returned it to where Lawrence football was at a place where it has been forever, but maybe hadn’t been in recent years,” Rampy said. “People told me that all the time. I don’t know if that’s true, but I know we were relevant and we had a chance.”

One of the biggest senior stars on this year’s team was running back Devin Neal, who has committed to play at the University of Kansas. The top-ranked recruit ended up with 1,370 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground and also had 16 catches for 186 yards and two scores.

But Neal was far from the only senior who played a big role on offense. Lane Luna, Drew Meyer and Porter Dannevik all helped pave the way for Neal with excellent blocking along the offensive line. And quarterback Jackson Dooley threw for 1,392 yards and 12 touchdowns.

A reliable group of seniors served as frequent passing targets for Dooley: Tre’ Jackson, John Green, Ben King and Ntense Obono. And while senior Graham Hough might have been a backup running back, he still delivered on a weekly basis with plenty of short touchdown runs.

On defense, senior linebacker Cole Mondi was involved on nearly every play and set an example with his strong work ethic. Defensive linemen Dylan Gillespie, Teagan Flynn, Trevor Baars and Preston Greenwood helped set the tone with physical play in the trenches.

Among the other seniors who excelled on defense were linebackers Blake Schimmel and Karson Green, who had a knack for flying to the ball; cornerback Kallun Chitama, who provided lock-down defense in the secondary; and safety Corban Oberzan, who made a number of key plays.

“I’m very, very proud of them,” Rampy said of his seniors. “Only one team in the state can win a state title. We can still enjoy the ride and appreciate what they accomplished.

“They were 16-3 over the last two years,” he added. “There are a lot of teams in the country that would want to be 16-3 in a two-year period.”

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Especially in the 2020 campaign, these star contributors helped the Lions win a lot of big games.

At one point in the season, LHS defeated three consecutive ranked opponents. The first game in that streak was a 37-28 win over Bishop Carroll, which also happened to be Lawrence’s first game back from quarantine. LHS then beat St. Thomas Aquinas, 39-27, which was that program’s first home loss since 2017. And then the Lions notched a 21-20 win over Olathe North thanks to a game-clinching tackle by Mondi on a 2-point conversion. All three of those opponents made it to the semifinals in their state brackets.

When the Lions try for more big wins next year, they will have to replace a lot of seniors. But there are still some key pieces coming back.

Late in some blowouts, junior Truman Juelsgaard showed a glimpse of his potential as a quarterback. Juniors Noah Smith and Acen Villegas are coming back to lead a strong offensive line. Sophomore Sam Sedo flashed some of his playmaking ability at times. And linebackers Jackson Wood and Evan Bannister will likely lead the way for Lawrence’s defense in their senior season next fall.

“It’s like I told the underclassmen,” Rampy said. “If you want to pay tribute to our seniors, then you take the work ethic that they had and the love that they have for each other. That’s how you honor this group. They set a standard for things that we have to continue to do.”

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