Preview: Heavy test awaits LHS Friday night against high-ranked Derby
photo by: Mike Shaw/Special to the Journal-World
It’ll be no easy task when No. 6 Lawrence High travels to No. 3 Derby High for the second round of the 6A state football playoffs on Friday, but it’ll be another opportunity for the Chesty Lions and head coach Clint Bowen to snap a postseason losing streak against the Panthers.
The last time Lawrence High beat Derby was in 1995, when Dick Purdy led LHS to its 28th state title. But this week’s game actually reminds Bowen of a game two years after that one — not a high school game, but a college one.
In 1997, Bowen was a graduate assistant who followed longtime Kansas coach Glen Mason from KU to Minnesota. Midway through that season, the 2-4 Gophers went on the road to face then-No. 1 Penn State.
As Bowen recalls it, a stranger expressed his sympathy for Mason and the underdog Gophers a couple of nights before the game: “I’d hate to be you guys this weekend.”
But Mason didn’t see it that way. Bowen said Mason told the stranger, “What’re you talking about? We get to go play in front of 105,000 fans on national TV. What’re you going to do? Go clean the garage? I’d hate to be you!”
Like the Gophers were in 1997, Lawrence High is looking forward to a chance to face a tough opponent on a big stage. But Bowen is also very much aware of what happened to the Gophers back then — Minnesota was ahead 15-3 in the fourth quarter, but then the Nittany Lions rattled off two unanswered scores to win the game.
The Panthers are just as serious a foe for these Chesty Lions. Derby has bested LHS in three consecutive postseasons since 2020, and now LHS heads back to the Wichita area in hope of putting that trend to rest.
The Lions, who had to grind out a 23-20 win over No. 11 seed Dodge City at home in the first round, will be tested again on defense. Derby has been outscoring its opponents by an average of 16.5 points, and it won eight games in a row since its season-opening loss to No. 2 Manhattan.
“A lot of work has gone into that,” Bowen said. “(Derby head coach Brandon Clark) does a nice job of getting that done, getting them to play very hard and very physical.”
This season, the Panthers overcame a midseason snag after losing starting quarterback Braxton Clark due to a lacerated kidney. Junior backup Easton Splane (32-of-51, 777 yards and nine touchdowns) kept the wheels turning to help Derby finish near the top of 6A.
Braxton Clark will be back to lead the offense this week, bringing his option threat back to the playbook and giving the Lions’ defense another layer of studying before game day.
Bowen said this week will demand more from his younger defenders than ever before.
“This here is really going to be the final exam,” Bowen said. “We’ve had to carry a pretty limited package just due to our youth and experience, but for this game, Derby creates enough problems with their offense that we’re going into this game with more defensive calls than we’ve had during any game this season.Our kids have finally hit a point where they can handle that.”
Offensively, the Lions will try to establish their triple-threat run game with senior tailbacks Tony Jacobsen and Malcolm Paul and junior quarterback Banks Bowen. Last week, Paul exited the game midway through with an apparent ankle injury.
LHS will do everything it can to overwhelm Derby’s two hard-nosed senior linebackers, Mason Hopper and Britton Pascual.
“We can’t make them tighten the box and (Derby) can’t just sit in the zone that they like to play,” Clint Bowen said. “They can make it difficult to pass the ball and they’ve been trying to play very honest in the box. We need to be able to run the ball to get them out of that.”
Kickoff is at 7 p.m. at Derby High School.