By Benton Smith, Lawrence Journal-World
Even a commanding opening drive for the Firebirds did the team no good against Sunflower League champion Shawnee Mission West, which turned three different FSHS special teams flubs into touchdowns and scored 41 unanswered points in a dominating 48-21 victory in the Class 6A state semifinals.
The first inklings of what would become an ugly drubbing showed up less than eight minutes into the game for Free State (10-2). Down 7-6 after both teams scored touchdowns on their opening drives, the Firebirds’ second possession stalled out with three straight incomplete passes by quarterback Kyle McFarland. When the senior QB took the fourth-down snap and stepped into a punt, the ball nailed Joe Dineen, who was a few yards in front of him to block, in the backside. Vikings senior Ben Lake picked up the ball at the two-yard line and scored an easy touchdown.
Though the mistake only gave SMW a one-possession lead, Free State coach Bob Lisher pointed to that play as the beginning of his team’s demise.
“You could kind of see the wind get sucked out of us after that first punt off the protector’s butt for a touchdown,” Lisher said. “From then on, it was kind of a downhill struggle.”
The Firebirds only managed one first down on their next five possessions in the first half while SMW (11-1) added a pair of Joey Reed field goals (including a 42-yarder to close the second quarter) and added a 34-yard touchdown pass from quarterback AJ Verdini to fullback Steffon Ward to take a 27-6 lead into halftime.
It all came as a bit of a shock to the Firebirds, who picked up six first downs and moved the ball 89 yards on their opening drive. They even took a 6-0 lead with a four-yard rushing touchdown by Dineen.
Said McFarland: “We marched the ball down the field the first time, then after that it broke down and we didn’t overcome the adversity.”
Any shot FSHS had at recovering in the second half evaporated on the opening kickoff of the third quarter, when SMW junior Andre Maloney took a reverse 82 yards for a touchdown.
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