Thursday, November 14, 2013

Sunflower League Sectional Round Playoff Preview

Olathe North's defense will have another big test against
Free State on Friday night. Photo LJWorld.
Lawrence Free State (9-1) 
at Olathe North (7-3)
Where: ODAC
Last meeting: Olathe North handed Free State the Firebirds' only loss of the season in a week five upset, 26-19.
Topeka CJ spread: Olathe North -4

Lawrence Free State
If this game was being played at Free State athletic stadium I would say the Firebirds would have the obvious edge, but a road game in Olathe (at ODAC, no less) can completely distort things. We saw it in week five when Free State played their worst game of the season, against who other than Olathe North, at ODAC. Free State's team speed and playmaking abilities are their biggest strengths. They lead the Sunflower League in takeaways with 30 (a ridiculously high number through 10 games), and they have as threats to score offensively as anyone, ranging from Joe Dineen to Blake Winslow to Khadre Lane and so on and so forth. Not to mention they've outscored their opponents 314-147 on the season. You get the point -- this Free State club is talented. Maybe not the best one-loss league team we've seen through 10 weeks of play, but with a couple more wins and they could be in the discussion.

Olathe North
It's easy to look ahead to next season and say Olathe North is going to be as good as any team in the Midwest. But then you realize, hey, they could just as easily win a state title this year. The Eagles are looking more and more like the Eagles that we all loved to marvel at and hate in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They're big, they're fast, they're cocky, and most importantly, they're very good. I would say athletically, the Eagles are the only team in the league who basically matches up with Free State pound-for-pound. Really the only thing the Eagles lack is experience, and that's sometimes overblown at the high school level. Whether it's junior tight end Josh Moore, who has offers from TCU, Texas Tech and Kansas, junior running back sensation Venus Triplett, junior dual-threat quarterback Cole Murphy, or whoever you want to point to, Olathe North is young and talented. And not to be outdone, FBS-bound linebacker Jimmie Swain, Jesse Kendricks, Jadon McGaha and Marcel Spears lead an Eagles defense that's forced 25 turnovers, second only to Free State.

What to expect
There's an old adage that becomes especially true this time of year; it's hard to beat a good team twice. Olathe North obviously took the first game, punching Free State early then clinging onto the league as Dineen and Co. made a late charge. I watched the game, and Free State looked fatigued in the first contest, compared to Olathe North who played at a pretty fast pace throughout. Maybe it was the short week following Free State's homecoming, or maybe the conversion from turf to the jungle grass at ODAC has a way of slowing teams down, and maybe Free State was just expecting the 'W'? Quite frankly, it was a sloppy game and I don't think we saw the best from either team. As it stands now, some six weeks later, the league's two most athletic teams will go head-to-head for the right to advance to the Sub-State round. And it only makes sense considering this will mark the seventh time in eight years that one of these two programs will be playing in Sub-State.

SM East (9-1) at Olathe East (7-3)
Where: CBAC
Last meeting: Olathe East defeated SM East 17-7 in the Regional Round of last year's playoffs.
Topeka CJ Spread: Olathe East -2

SM East
This year's group of Lancers is already the winningest group in school history, but they have a chance to add to that legacy if they can go out and win on the road at Olathe East. This is just the third time in 13 years the Lancers have advanced to Sectionals. In 2001 they won their Sectional game, before losing to Olathe North in Sub-State. In 2011 they fell to Olathe South in a 55-42 shootout. So while advancing to Sub-State isn't unprecedented territory, it would be a completely new territory for this generation of Lancers. SM East's approach isn't necessarily based on having the most talent, but rather they win by playing within what's becoming a pretty vaunted flexbone system. Running back Luke Taylor (1,102 rushing yards and 11 TDs) and defensive end Kyle Ball (84 tackles, six sacks) have been the Lancer's most consistent threats on offensive and defensive, respectively.

Olathe East
A couple well-established beliefs about the Olathe East football program: one, they play their best football of the season in early to mid November, and two, when they play their smashmouth style of football they're usually capable of beating anyone, regardless of their own personnel. They proved this last week when they absolutely stonewalled a Gardner-Edgerton offense that was averaging 42 points per game, holding them to just seven points, while comfortably tacking on two touchdowns, a field goal and a safety on their end. Running backs Jalen Branson and Jordan Brown are no joke, and both kids have proven to be big play threats. Defensively, linebacker Nathan Guthrie is getting Buck Buchanan mentions as one of the area's top linebackers. He leads the unit with 122 tackles.

What to expect
Lancer Magic has worked in nine of ten weeks, and we'll see if it's good enough for another victory this time. Olathe East has proven they can stop a traditional rushing attack time and again, but they've yet to face what SM East brings to the table with the flexbone. And, as eight other Sunflower League teams can attest to, it's not exactly an easy thing to shut down the first time you face it. Really though, if those two forces are kind of neutralizing, it could come down to SM East's passing game versus Olathe East finding success in the run game. The Hawks are tough to beat when Branson and Brown get their carries, while SM East is best when they have early success through the air to keep defenses honest.


Free State Fan said...

The loss earlier this year came on the heals of beating SMW the week before, then the #1 team and at full strength. FS moved to #1 and turned around to play on Thursday before playing the hard-charging SME the following week. At the time, it was the classic "trap game" and I believe FS was looking ahead to SME. There is nothing to look ahead to this week... you only get one loss in the playoffs. I expect a much different effort from FS tonight. Go 'Birds!

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