For Shawnee Mission West, it had to be this way. Lawrence Free State brought its version of shock and awe to SM South District Stadium in its Sept. 7 meeting with the Vikings. The Firebirds, 10-1, needed a mere 24 seconds to grab a lead on back-to-back bombs from quarterback Kyle McFarland – a 37-yard heave to Keith Loneker followed immediately by a 43-yard touchdown pass play to Zach Bickling.
It was a deflating gut-punch for SM West, which had just about recovered and was almost to the halftime locker room trailing only 14-7 before Free State delivered another vicious blow on the last play of the first half.
Returning a punt 62 yards for a touchdown after a fake reverse, Tye Hughes provided a two-touchdown cushion and, ultimately, the game-winning points in a 28-14 win for the Firebirds.
“We didn’t work hard on defense that week after the Lawrence victory,” defensive lineman Max Bullard said. “We got beat deep early, and that was a reflection of the way we practiced. We took it easy, and after that we weren’t used to being down and having to recover, so we lost our composure.”
It was a hard lesson for the Vikings to learn, but one that might have been needed.
“Our kids remember it, but it was one of those deals where we didn’t feel like we played particularly well in all facets,” SM West coach Tim Callaghan said. “But we found out a lot about who we are as a team. We talked a lot about identity and everybody doing their job after that week.”
That loss remains the only blemish on the Vikings’ ledger for 2012.
“The Saturday after that loss, we talked and said we want to see those guys again,” Callaghan said. “Not necessarily because we think we’re better than they are, but we want to show how much improvement we’ve made since week two.”
Now, avenging that loss is the only way to return to the Kansas 6A state championship game for the first time since 2006 – when an undefeated SM West squad had to outlast an undefeated Free State team for the right to tangle with powerhouse Hutchinson.
“It’s not revenge as much as it’s our desire to get to the state championship,” Bullard said. “Free State is the team between us and that chance, so we’re excited to fight for the chance to get that state ring.”
The Vikings are the Sunflower League champions, but that loss to the Firebirds lingers. Officially, SM West had a 7-0 league record and claimed the 14th league championship in its history.
It’s the fifth league title for the Vikings since 2005, but the first outright crown since 1988.
Deep down, though, SM West knows Free State probably deserves a slice of the title.
“We have a lot of respect for Free State, but our goal here is always to win a state championship,” lineman Aaron Brown said. “That’s what matters most. We’re both pretty well-rounded teams and have both evolved and got better since that game. We’ve moved past that game, but of course we want to show how far we’ve come with our hard work since that game.”
Obviously, the motivation at 7 p.m. Friday night at SM South District Stadium goes well beyond revenge or nobody will be worried about legitimizing the Sunflower League title when the game kicks off.
Right now, it’s all about the state title.
For the loser, it’s the end of the road – and the end of an era as one group of seniors sheds its pads for the final time together.
“We’re more of a team now and we count on each other to do their job,” Callaghan said. “We’re more disciplined and sound team than we were then.”
Perhaps that will make all the difference.
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to <a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com</a>. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer