LAWRENCE — With the top two Kansas teams in The Kansas City Star’s rankings facing off Friday, the anticipation for Shawnee Mission West and Lawrence Free State came with plenty of buildup.
By RYAN McCARTHY
Special to The Star
Extra intrigue was added since the Vikings, who took home the 6A state title last season, knocked off the Firebirds in the state playoffs.
But Free State capitalized on some turnovers early in the second half that cemented its 35-14 victory over SM West.
“That’s the mark of a good team. Shawnee Mission West took advantage of our mistakes last year, and we took care of theirs this year,” Free State coach Bob Lisher said.
The first big play of the third quarter was by Free State junior Justin Narcomey, who picked off senior AJ Verdini and returned the interception 70 yards for a touchdown that made it 28-7.
After a fumble by the Vikings, senior quarterback Joe Dineen connected with senior Blake Winslow for a 10-yard touchdown, putting the game out of reach.
“Momentum in football is everything, and when you keep the ball on their side of the 50, that’s what it’s all about,” Dineen said.
Having a leader like Dineen proved to be crucial for the Firebirds’ success. He passed for 181 yards, ran for 45 more and ended up with four total touchdowns.
SM West started the scoring early when senior Mario Louis rumbled in from 4 yards out for an early 7-0 lead.
Free State responded with a 9-yard run by Dineen that tied the game.
“We answered back, and when you do that it sends a message to their team and sends a message to our team that we can handle it,” Lisher said.
After both defenses prevailed for much of the half, the Firebirds made a few crucial plays and grabbed the lead heading into the locker room.
The first came when senior Stan Skwarlo broke free for a 41-yard run. Skwarlo did not score in the game, but he had 25 carries for 113 yards.
“He had a hard time gripping the ball early, but he calmed down and hit some holes,” Lisher said.
Then, on fourth and 12, Dineen connected with senior Keith Loneker, who broke a few tackles for a 27-yard touchdown, giving Free State a 14-7 advantage.
With little time left in the half, the Firebirds drove down the field once again. Dineen threw another high pass that senior Khadre Lane brought down for a 26-yard TD with 8 seconds remaining.
“I just threw it as high and far as I could and I knew he was going to make a play,” Dineen said.
SM West’s other score came when Verdini connected with Justin Hobbs for 33 yards midway through the fourth quarter.
Although it was important for Lawrence Free State to win the rematch, it knows celebrating a win later in the season will be much more sweet than right now.
“You’ve got to continue to improve. You’ve got to handle success and you’ve got to continue to get better,” Lisher said.