Free State football closes out busy summer with strong team camp

photo by: Shane Jackson

Free State's offense celebrates after scoring a touchdown on the final play of summer camp on Thursday at FSHS on July 15, 2021.

Free State’s football players know how to keep the energy and enthusiasm high — even when they’re running the same plays back to back at summer camp.

Take Thursday’s session, when starting quarterback Jet Dineen threw two go balls and each one prompted a big celebration — but on opposite sides of the ball.

The first time, Dineen threw toward Jerred Willits but was thwarted by cornerback Johnnie Williams’ coverage in the end zone.

The defense was jubilant, but not for long.

When the offense ran the play again, Willits got behind Williams. The receiver snagged Dineen’s throw perfectly, and then he and his offensive teammates kicked off their celebration with a chest bump.

There was some teasing and trash talk — a little too much for head coach Kevin Stewart — but Stewart said he was glad to see his team playing with such intensity, even when there was nothing but bragging rights at stake.

“It seems like it has been a long time since we got after it a little bit, so that was fun,” Stewart said.

photo by: Shane Jackson

Free State cornerback Johnnie Williams breaks up a pass intended for senior receiver Jerred Willits on Thursday at FSHS on July 15, 2021.

The Firebirds certainly won’t be rusty when they take the field later this year. They’ve had a busy schedule for most of the summer — a contact camp at Emporia State, a one-day camp with Blue Valley North and some seven-on-seven events with Eudora, Lawrence High and other area programs. At the camp this past week, they spent the mornings lifting and the evenings installing their offense and defense.

“We’re getting a lot better at our base plays,” Stewart said. “Guys are starting to understand; it’s become second nature. That’s really what you want to see out of the summer. When we get to week one, we don’t have to install any of our base stuff.”

Some key players weren’t available for camp, but that meant others had the chance to step up and take on bigger roles.

“I really think that we saw a lot of depth,” Stewart said. “We had a few guys that were out this week that didn’t go, and I saw a lot of guys step up (to) build some good depth, and so that was good to see.”

Camp is never just about installing plays, though — it’s also about installing relationships. At the end of each camp session, Stewart had seniors step in front of the huddle and introduce themselves to the team, and that included details about their lives off the field, too.

“I told the seniors that these guys are going to remember you when you leave,” Stewart said. “These guys who are sophomores and freshmen, they’re going to remember who the seniors were when they played football.

“Just trying to get them to understand it is bigger than football,” Stewart added. “You’re trying to leave your mark, let people know who you are, and be good leaders.”

photo by: Shane Jackson

Free State head coach Kevin Stewart speaks to the football team after the final day of summer camp on Thursday at FSHS on July 15, 2021.

So, who are the leaders on this year’s roster? Some of them made their presence known at camp.

Start with Dineen, who had 1,100 all-purpose yards last year as a junior during six games against some of the best teams in the area. Dash Cleveland will be returning at running back, and receivers Jake Patchen and Manny Epelle should have more chances to shine in their final season.

On the offensive line, senior Tyler Gourley has been a three-year starter at center, and junior Calvin Clements, who already has offers from three Big 12 schools, is slated to play left tackle.

Tai Newhouse will continue to play along the offensive line, but he will also be leading a strong group in the trenches on defense. That includes defensive linemen Preston Tran and Brian Lane, linebacker Quez Lee and cornerback Grant Gregory.

Last year, the Firebirds went 0-6. This year, they think they have the talent to put that behind them.

“Our seniors set the goals this year, and the main goal they set was that they wanted to grow as a team,” Stewart said. “That was actually above anything else. They said they wanted to grow as a team and build Free State back up.”


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