|Ryan Murphy accounted for 321 yards of|
total offense in his final game as a Free
State Firebird. LJWorld.
But Lawrence Free State (10-1) travels to play SM West (10-1) this week in a game that should be a dandy. The last time these two teams met, exactly six years ago, in this same round with similar expectations, I was a junior for SM West. Failing to write about that game--which had so many parallels to the one coming up this Friday--would be doing the past an injustice.
It was November of 2006. We (SM West) were coming off a 22-7 Sectional victory over Lawrence High. The game had been played on the grass at Haskell Stadium, and it was a mess--I distinctly remember an ice storm hitting midway through the second quarter. Freezing cold, muddy, everything that you'd like to avoid as a player. But a strong rushing attack led by JD Steffen allowed us to overpower a Lawrence team we had taken out 51-7 earlier in the year. Miles away in Olathe, "The Guarantee" game had run its course, with Free State coming out on top, 32-12, as had been expected.
What it set up was a matchup between two 11-0 teams who'd been brewing to play each other all season. Fortunately, I had my whits about me enough to capture some of what took place that week.
On Monday when our coaching staff was prepping us for Free State at practice our defensive coordinator at the time, Mark Frase (currently the D-coordinator at SM South), described Christian Ballard as being "a seven foot tall, 400-pound guy who could run and loved to hit people!" We knew he was exaggerating... sort of.
I spent the week running the scout team offense's version of Brian and Ryan Murphy, rotating accordingly. Our coaches specifically instructed us to "jitter-bug" around more than we would ever normally do to help simulate the movement of the Murphy's.
Those twins were the quickest and most agile players I've seen play in the league aside from Darren Sproles. They were nearly impossible to tackle in open field and the only way to slow them down was to gang tackle and hope they didn't slip out (the only video I could find of either was this video clip from their regular season game with SM West from the previous year, 2005). I couldn't help but think I was doing the Murphys and our defense an injustice with regard to speed and quickness each time I ran another scripted play.
The Lawrence Journal World had six articles on the game that week, not to mention a two-hour long podcast and a full page spread on the day of the game. The Blitz, which was a weekly Sunflower League football magazine at the time, produced by The Olathe News, was geared completely towards both teams, including a feature article on Free State's three-headed monstrous defensive front made up of Ballard, Kyle Weinmaster and Mike Ruder. Even the Kansas City Star had a larger than life spread in their sports section the Friday morning of the game.
The hype for the game had been building for 11 weeks. People were ready for the Game of the Century in the Sunflower League, as it had been dubbed by local media pundits that week.
Free State's roster featured four players with division one offers. Ballard basically had his choice of suitors, ranging from Georgia to Oklahoma to Iowa. The Murphy twins had both committed to Kansas. Ruder had received an offer from Wyoming earlier in the season. Meanwhile SM West boasted two division one talents. Blake Lawrence had committed to Nebraska over a litany of Big XII offers and David Leonard would commit to Wyoming several weeks later.
The Simone hopeful Lawrence had messed up some bone the previous week against Lawrence--I want to say it was a wrist injury. He wasn't going to play quarterback, at least early on. The coaches figured we needed him more on defense to slow Free State's offensive barrage. The team was hoping and praying Free State didn't catch wind of his injury during the week. Our second string quarterback, Jared Witter, who was known more for his kicking abilities, took reps with the first team offense all week and started the game.
A month after the game, Weinmaster had told me at the Big XII Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium that the defensive player they were worried most about wasn't Lawrence. Rather, it was linebacker Andrew Kuhn, a 6-2, 230-pound converted offensive guard who hit like a train. I'm pretty sure the majority of the "flash" mini concussions I received in my years at West came against Kuhn in practice.
The game kicked off on November 17, 2006. We won the toss, deferred, and elected to kick off. Touchback. Free State put together a long, gut-checking drive. A long run by Ryan Murphy set the Firebirds up at the one. On the next play he snuck the ball in from a yard out to give Free State a 6-0 edge (they botched the extra point).
We got the ball back and drove deep into Free State territory. After failing to convert a first down we lined up and missed a field goal. On the very next play, Free State's first of the drive, Ryan Murphy tossed a short screen pass to Chucky Hunter who momentarily had possession before dropping the ball. Defensive end Corey Maher scooped up the loose ball and took it back 30 yards for a touchdown. We were up 7-6.
|JD Steffen, a First Team All-Sunflower League |
running back in 2006, was key to the SM West
victory over Free State. LJWorld.
At halftime, head coach Tim Callaghan made some overt nod at Lawrence. I saw it first hand. I remember jogging back onto the field behind Lawrence and Witter and hearing them discuss who was starting the second half at quarterback. There was some confusion over what the nod was for, but it turned out it meant Lawrence was back at quarterback for the second half.
We drove 80 yards on the opening possession with Lawrence back under center. He capped off the drive hitting Leonard on an eight-yard fade route in the back of the endzone. The score put us up 21-14 and the seven point lead held through the end of the third quarter.
In the beginning of the fourth quarter Free State made a crucial mistake, losing a fumble deep in their own territory. They played stout defense and forced us to kick a field goal, but this time Witter hit it from 44 yards out, to put us up 24-14.
We got the ball back a little later, but Steffen coughed another one up (the last of a combined seven turnovers by both teams that night). Free State nearly capitalized, driving into our redzone, but they came up short on a fourth down play turning it over to us inside our own 20. We put together a few clock killing first downs before Lawrence broke loose on a 52-yard touchdown run. The score put us up 31-14, with 1:51 remaining in the game. That was all she wrote.
We lost to Hutchinson, 21-14, the next Saturday afternoon in Emporia. The Salthawks had a couple players on their team that would have passed as 40-year-old men. Our special teams kept us in the game, scoring once on a blocked punt return and returning a kick which set up the offense for an easy touchdown inside the Hutchinson redzone. The game had been tied at 7 at halftime, but Romero Cotton scored on an 80-yard run on the first play of the third quarter, putting them up 14-7. We tied the game at 14 with the quick score off the kick return, before they added another touchdown, which we weren't able to overcome
Playing in the title game felt so foreign. Emporia State's stadium wasn't large enough to seat the hoards of fans who'd come, and since many of the people in attendance were adults who arrived very early, much of our student section that arrived closer to game time struggled to get decent seats. What that created was a SM West crowd that was literally like a neutral crowd. The sliver of the stands that were claimed by our students had little impact on the noise at the game. Many students had to stand in the grassy area around the south side of the stadium, which did little to add noise.
Everything was out of whack. The visitor's locker room was literally more of a storage closet and I couldn't help but think how odd it was that the Sub-State game had been played at a better facility than the State Championship game. Looking back on that season it's the Sub-State game against Free State that brings back the most memories. Not because we lost in the title game, but because of how much was at stake with all the build up to playing Free State.
Sub-State games have a way of living up to the hype. Will this Friday's game between Free State and SM West, two teams with a combined record of 20-2, be as compelling as the matchup back in 2006? That remains to be seen. We'll find out on Friday night in a game that should be one of the best we've seen all year in the Sunflower League.