Lions, Firebirds each taking a different approach to this year’s City Showdown

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence High running back Devin Neal (4) rushes for yardage during a game against the Free State Friday night at LHS on Oct. 25, 2019.

Lawrence High head coach Steve Rampy still shoulders the blame for last year’s 31-30 home loss to Free State in the regular-season finale.

Rampy didn’t surrender a kickoff return for a touchdown to start the third quarter, and he certainly wasn’t responsible for two costly second-half turnovers by LHS. But Rampy, who is in his third year at the helm, admitted that he didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of this rivalry.

And that ultimately played a part in the Lions squandering a 21-10 halftime lead in last year’s version of the City Showdown.

“I’m not ignoring that (the rivalry hype) is there,” Rampy said. “Last year, I couldn’t even wrap my brain around it. It didn’t make sense to me. I’m at least acknowledging that it is there (this season).”

Rampy would like his team to treat Friday’s matchup at Free State (0-4) like any other game, especially considering all that the Lions (6-0, No. 1 in Class 6A) have accomplished this year. LHS has defeated three ranked opponents in a row, including a 21-20 victory over Olathe North (No. 2 in Class 6A) last week.

At the same time, Lawrence hasn’t defeated Free State since a 14-12 win on Sept. 18, 2015, under then-head coach Dirk Wedd during a 10-1 campaign. The Firebirds own a 15-8 advantage in the all-time series, and have won the previous four meetings with the Lions.

So a win in this crosstown rivalry Friday would be a first for a large senior class at LHS, which also has aspirations of having a deep postseason run.

“I explained to them that I don’t understand the whole hype of the game,” Rampy said. “If we play like we are capable of playing, we are going to be OK. That’s going to be our philosophy and has been our philosophy all year so far. We are playing Free State, and it’s something called the City Showdown, that is something for everybody else to worry about.”

Even the LHS players agreed that they let the emotions get the best of them last year, so there has been an emphasis on not getting caught up in all that buzz during practice this week.

“Everyone is keeping it business as usual,” LHS senior running back Devin Neal said. “I think that was one of our downfalls last year — was playing too much with our emotions instead of playing with our head and staying focused.”

photo by: Mike Yoder

Lawrence High quarterback Jackson Dooley (15) tosses over a Free State defense during a Free State Firebirds and Lawrence Lions game Friday night at LHS on Oct. 25, 2019.

Free State, meanwhile, is taking a different approach to this year’s matchup.

The Firebirds have had a brutal schedule this year, which includes lopsided losses to Olathe North and Mill Valley (No. 2 in Class 5A) during an 0-4 start. They have played the fewest games in the state because of two different quarantines, which have cost them three contests.

As a result, Free State understands that a win in the latest crosstown clash could go a long way in giving the team plenty of momentum entering the playoffs.

“The thing I told the guys is that (we need to) play our best this week, play hard and play to win the football game,” FSHS head coach Kevin Stewart said. “If we beat a good Lawrence High team this week, going into the playoffs, you have to feel pretty good about yourself about having a chance to make a run all the way.”

Taking on the top-ranked team in the state is never easy, particularly when the Firebirds haven’t played since their 52-0 defeat to Mill Valley on Oct. 2. Free State was forced to quarantine over the last two weeks and didn’t return to practice until Oct. 15.

Players and the coaching staff remained in contact via zoom, but there was obviously some rust on the first day back. Free State then responded with a pair of strong practices to start the week in preparation for its matchup with Lawrence.

“We had the best two days of practice that we had all year on Monday and Tuesday,” Stewart said. “I think that’s simply the guys are excited and they want to play these guys. All year has been a distraction with everything that’s going on. This is the first week that I have felt like we are focused on the game only.”

A lot of that extra energy just comes from the players knowing each other, of course. Many players grew up together and were even teammates in youth sports, which certainly adds a unique element ahead of the 24th edition of the City Showdown.

It also helps that many of the players involved in last year’s thrilling contest are back for the rematch in 2020.

Neal, who is verbally committed to KU, ran for 226 yards against Free State a season ago. FSHS gave Jet Dineen his first-career start at quarterback in this matchup last year, and he’s accounted for over 650 total yards in his four games as the full-time signal caller this fall.

LHS also returns quarterback Jackson Dooley, who has directed a high-octane offense that features talented senior receivers like Tre’ Jackson, Ben King and John Green. Lawrence senior Cole Mondi and FSHS senior Gage Callaghan are both holding down the linebacker position for their respective teams.

“We are ecstatic (to be back), especially playing LHS,” Callaghan said. “We want to do what we know we can do. We want to prove ourselves, because we feel like we haven’t done that yet.”

Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. Friday at FSHS.


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