If you had only seen Lawrence Free State’s opening drive against Shawnee Mission West, you would assume that the Firebirds went on to roll to a win in the Kansas Class 6A semifinals Friday at SM South District Stadium.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
But after that 16-play, 89-yard march, it was the Vikings that put together a thoroughly dominant performance en route to a 48-21 win and a date next Saturday with Hutchinson in the Class 6A championship game.
“That’s a really good team,” SM West coach Tim Callaghan said. “We had some fortunate plays and felt really good about getting some big ones early. The kids really played hard. That’s a very good team, and they played hard, too. But it was our night tonight.”
The Vikings, 11-1, answered that first score with a pair of touchdowns 26 seconds apart and didn’t look back — at one point building a 35-point lead midway through the third quarter.
“It’s hit me, and it’s like a dream — a dream come true,” said junior defensive end Lee Spight, who had three sacks and was a general menace for SM West’s defense.
Aided by a personal foul on its first drive, SM West grabbed a 7-6 lead on junior A.J. Verdini’s 33-yard bomb to junior wide receiver Andre Maloney, who has burned defenses with the deep post this season.
“People talked about how good the pass defense was for Free State, but we passed on them well that first drive, and after that we knew we could do anything,” senior wide receiver/linebacker Joel Spiller said.
Free State, which rushed on 15 of its 16 opening-drive plays, came out determined to establish the passing game — a decision that backfired.
Quarterback Kyle McFarland threw three straight incompletions and then punted the ball off his upback, allowing SM West senior Ben Lake to scoop up the ball at the 1-yard line and tumble into the end zone for a demoralizing touchdown.
“We talked about how our special teams were an embarrassment in week two,” Callaghan said. “We wanted to get better, and that’s a big part of the game that we really haven’t capitalized on.”
The Vikings’ only loss this season had come against the Firebirds in week two.
Free State managed only one first down the rest of the half, while SM West benefited from playing with a short field to pump up its lead.
Early in the second quarter after a 24-yard punt return by Maloney, the Vikings only managed four yards, but the drive yielded a 33-yard field by senior Joey Reed anyway.
Senior Steffon Ward took a short pass into the flats from Verdini for a 34-yard score on the next drive, which upped SM West’s lead to 24-6, while Reed boomed through a 45-yard field goal at the second-quarter horn to make it a 21-point game at halftime.
The Vikings then went for the jugular on the opening kickoff of the second half when senior Brett Sterbach fed Maloney on a reverse that went for 85 yards and a back-breaking touchdown.
“We definitely emphasized that we couldn’t think the game was over, because we knew we were playing one of the best teams in the state of Kansas,” Spiller said. “We knew if we let them have any momentum, they’d fly right back into the game. But that kickoff return showed that we were unstoppable tonight.”
Free State followed with a three-and-out and another punt that was stuffed by the upback, setting up a 15-yard drive for SM West.
Sterbach, who finished with 19 carries for 93 yards, scored on a 1-yard plunge five plays later for an insurmountable 41-6 lead.
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.