LHS, Free State football teams eager to kick off unusual 2020 season
photo by: Ashley Golledge
Preparing for the start of any high school football season is always a challenge, but doing it in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it tougher.
After weeks of worrying, wondering and finding a way to get ready, the Free State and Lawrence High football teams open the 2020 season at 7 p.m. Friday, with LHS hosting Shawnee Heights and Free State welcoming De Soto to town.
Both games will serve as senior night, and both are newly scheduled games from the original slates.
While the bulk of the week leading up to kickoff has been pretty standard, the weeks that preceded it were anything but normal.
“It’s been very challenging,” second-year Free State coach Kevin Stewart said. “There have been a lot of distractions, but we’re excited to finally play football again. And I think that going through all of this has made the football part more enjoyable. I think that we appreciate it a little more and we’re all really thankful for the time that we get to just work on football.”
After finishing with 8-2 records a season ago, LHS and Free State enter 2020 with big expectations.
The Lions return 17 starters from last season’s team — 10 on offense and seven on defense — and are regarded by many as one of the top teams in the state.
But third-year LHS coach Steve Rampy, who is entering his 41st season as a head coach, has not allowed his team to think too much about the record, wins or the postseason during the weeks leading up to the season. Instead, Rampy has approached things the same way he has during his 40 prior seasons.
“The kids hear me say this all the time,” Rampy said. “All I am interested in is that whoever we’re playing gets our best. And if that’s good enough to win, great.”
Included among the returning starters from 2019 are quarterback Jackson Dooley, tailback and KU commitment Devin Neal and all-Sunflower League defensive lineman Dylan Gillespie.
While Neal, who added 15 pounds of muscle from last season, is one of the top weapons in the state, Rampy said Dooley is the Lion who makes the offense go.
“He understands the RPO scheme as well as most high school quarterbacks,” Rampy said. “And he’s going to run the whole show for us. We put an amazing amount of responsibility on his shoulders, and he handles it very well.”
In addition, the Lions return five starters along the offensive line, all of whom have been starting since they were sophomores.
From left to right, the line will be led by junior Noah Smith, junior Acen Villegas and seniors Porter Dannevik, Lane Luna and Drew Meyer.
On the defensive line, LHS will surround Gillespie with seniors Preston Greenwood, Teagan Flynn and Trevor Baars. And that group, along with LHS’s veteran O-line, will allow the Lions to field an experienced and physical group up front on both sides of the ball.
“That’s where it all starts,” Rampy said.
Friday’s battle with Shawnee Heights will be a reunion of sorts for Rampy. Coaching the Thunderbirds will be Jason Swift, whom Rampy called “my all-time favorite player I’ve ever coached.”
Swift and several of his siblings played for Rampy at Blue Valley, and the two have remained close throughout their coaching careers.
That fact could help Rampy’s team have a better understanding of how Shawnee Heights will play despite having only a few weeks to prepare for the game.
“We’ll know some of the things they do because it’s some of what we’ve always done,” Rampy said.
photo by: Mike Gunnoe
The Firebirds will have considerably less knowledge about both their opponent and themselves to open the season.
De Soto returns several players from last season’s 10-1 team, and Stewart’s Firebirds will be counting on several new faces in new places to kick off 2020.
One of them, junior quarterback Jet Dineen, is the latest in a long line of familiar Firebirds.
Dineen’s older brothers, Joe, Jay and Jax, were all-state performers during their days in Free State green, and Stewart said he was excited to see what the youngest Dineen brother could do this year.
“He’s our quarterback,” Stewart said. “And he’s a very accurate passer, he’s got good arm strength and he’s able to scramble and move a little bit. If we’re going to be successful the next couple of years, it’s going to have a lot to do with him.”
But Dineen will not have the luxury of handing the ball to the Firebirds’ leading rusher from 2019. Stewart said tailback Tyler Bowden’s family moved to Tonganoxie in the offseason.
Replacing Bowden is junior Dash Cleveland, who played some varsity football as a kick returner a year ago but spent most of the time as the starting running back with Free State’s junior varsity team.
Stewart said he was excited about the potential for both young players, but he added that the Firebirds have a few unknowns, as well.
“I think defensively we’re going to have a fast team that swarms and runs around,” Stewart said. “We just don’t have a lot of depth at the offensive skill positions.”
Other names to watch on the Free State roster include junior lineman Tai Newhouse, senior outside linebacker Jacobee Williams, senior linebacker Gage Callaghan and senior defensive backs Ben Stallard and Ryley Wheat. All five have starting experience and will be asked to help lead the young Firebirds through 2020.
“It feels like game week,” Stewart said. “The guys are definitely excited to play football, and the coaches are excited, too. Our expectations are really just like everyone’s expectations, but we mostly just want to play a football game and see where we’re at.”
Attendance at both games will be limited to two spectators per player, and no walk-up tickets will be sold. Fans also will be asked to wear masks, remain in the stands and practice social distancing of at least 10 feet throughout the game.
Neither the home teams nor the visitors will use the locker rooms for tonight’s game.
For those fans who are unable to attend but still want to catch the action, both schools have arranged to have their games streamed live online at uclicktv.com — LHS vs. Shawnee Heights and Free State vs. De Soto.