KANSAS CLASS 6A
(4) Olathe East, 6-4, at (1) Lawrence Free State, 9-1
7 p.m. Friday at Lawrence Free State
Outlook: The two teams did not meet in the regular season, so expect a defensive battle. Both the visiting Hawks and host Firebirds feature unusual defenses that are difficult to prepare for. Without that firsthand knowledge this season, both defenses should have a slight edge. Olathe East coach Jeff Meyers and Free State coach Bob Lisher certainly know how to prepare for one another after butting heads so frequently through the years, but installing the game plan and instilling the philosophy into a new group of players in a week still presents challenges.
About Olathe East: The Hawks have been solid defensively all season, but the last five games have been lights out. Beginning with a 14-3 win against Olathe North in the final game before district play, Olathe East’s defense had coughed up only 7.2 points per game in rolling to a district title and dispatching Shawnee Mission East in the opening round of the playoffs. The Hawks are committed to churning out yards with senior tailback Hayden Frazier, who carried the ball 36 times and finished with 162 yards and a touchdown in that 17-7 playoff win against the Lancers. Look for Frazier to get the bulk of the carries again.
About Lawrence Free State: Everything worked last week for the Firebirds, who totaled more than 200 yards both rushing and passing in a 38-22 win against Olathe North. Free State led 38-7 at halftime before beginning to sub out starters midway through the third quarter, which allowed the Eagles to get some cosmetic scores that made the final score seem much closer than the game ever felt. Quarterback Kyle McFarland was electrifying, completing 15 of 18 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns, while running back T.J. Cobbs blitzed Olathe North’s defense for 156 and two touchdowns on only 12 carries. Meanwhile, the Firebirds’ defense bottled up running back Venus Triplett (10 carries for 13 yards), though he did get loose for a kickoff return score.
Prediction: Lawrence Free State 28, Olathe East 14
(2) SM West, 9-1, at Lawrence, 8-2
7 p.m. Friday at Lawrence
Outlook: SM West beat Lawrence 20-14 during the regular season, but don’t put too much stock into that result. For starters, the game was played in August, which might as well have been a century ago in terms of a football season. Second, the game was played in a tropical depression as Hurricane Isaac weakened over land but dumped torrents of rain on the Midwest as it petered out. Neither team is the same as it was during the season-opening meeting. And as much as the Chesty Lions might feel like they have something to prove in the quest to avenge one of its only two losses this season, the Vikings have just as much reason to expect a better performance as well.
About SM West: The Vikings are riding an eight-game win streak into play and rolled to the Sunflower League title with behind a ball-control offense and a tenacious defense. Lawrence had some success defensively in that first meeting, which was SM West’s worst offensive output of the season — during a tropical depression, of course. It’s inconceivable that junior quarterback A.J. Verdini, whose has made tremendous strides in the last month, won’t complete a pass again. He was 0-for-4 during that season-opening win. SM West’s run game has improved and should be effective against the undersized Lions, powered by the Sunflower League rushing champ Brett Sterbach, who has racked up 1,702 yards and 19 touchdowns on 243 carries this season.
About Lawrence: Containing senior quarterback Brad Strauss is the key to beating the Lions, but very few teams have had much success doing it. SM West was one of them, but Strauss is playing with boatloads of confidence right now. He’s coming off a career-high 320-yard passing performance and has thrown at least two touchdowns in nine straight games after tossing only one in the season-opening loss to the Vikings. Strauss needs 86 yards to reach 5,000 in his career and 44 yards to reach 2,000 career rushing yards. Defensively, there’s no mystery about what’s coming – roughly 30 carries from Sterbach and the occasional deep shot from Verdini to wide receiver Andre Maloney, It’s up to Strauss at free safety as well as the Lions’ leading tacklers, Asaph Jewsome (76) and Hunter Haralson (75), to stop it along with two-way lineman Kharon Brown.
Prediction: SM West 34, Lawrence 30
KANSAS CLASS 5A
(1) St. Thomas Aquinas, 9-1, at Blue Valley, 6-4
7 p.m. Friday at Blue Valley
Outlook: The Saints honestly believe that with a minute more in the Oct. 4 loss to Blue Valley, the final result would have been flipped. Aquinas gave up a late touchdown, but then missed a potential game-winning field goal as time expired in its only loss of the season. Still, coach Mike Thomas says that the chance to advance one step closer to a Kansas 5A title is a much bigger carrot than revenge entering a rematch with the Tigers with much more at stake. Blue Valley, of course, has endured a roller-coaster season, but playoff time has been the Tigers’ time to shine in recent seasons and coach Eric Driskell’s bunch hopes to continue that trend.
About St. Thomas Aquinas: The Saints are emblematic of the East Kansas League as a whole and, thus, are probably the perfect team to win the title in arguably the most competitive and balanced season in its history. Aquinas isn’t exactly a dominating defense. It was the top scoring unit in the EKL, but ranked in the middle of the pack against the run and pass. Led by Joe Maxwell, Will McDonald, Cole Pickert, Nick Williams, Ben Ewing and Hunter Swanson, who all have at least 50 tackles this season, Aquinas just gets it done. It’s the same story for quarterback Danten Cosentino and the offense. The Saints have been remarkably consistent, which should continue to serve Thomas’ crew well.
About Blue Valley: On the other hand, the Tigers have been anything but consistent. One week, Blue Valley dominates Bishop Miege defensively, but the next it can’t get its own offense untracked against BV Northwest. The Tigers shut out Pittsburg in a 55-point rout late in the season only to get steamrolled the next week by BV West. Still, the defense is playing well and coach Eric Driskell has guided his program to the Kansas 5A championship game in both seasons at the helm. Blue Valley knows how to win in the playoffs and relied on a stout, game-changing defense to advance last week. Still, it’s going to take a more steady performance offensively to win. Quarterback Logan Brettell can’t throw two interceptions again like he did in beating Shawnee Heights, and the run game has to average more than 3.6 yards per carry.
Prediction: St. Thomas Aquinas 24, Blue Valley 20
(3) BV West, 8-2, at Bishop Miege, 5-5
7 p.m. Friday at Bishop Miege
Outlook: Hopefully, the folks at Miege are checking and rechecking the lights on the scoreboard at Dixon Doll Stadium, because they could be getting a pinball machine-style workout with these two offenses. During the regular season, the Jaguars beat the Stags 41-36, building a big lead early and holding off a furious rally led by quarterback Montell Cozart. But Miege seemed to gain confidence from that fourth-quarter surge and has been clicking on all cylinders since then offensively.
About BV West: Speaking of firing in all cylinders, the Jags have owned the line of scrimmage the last three weeks. Running back Conley Wilkins has had gaping holes to run through and impeccably set edges to turn up field for long TD run and long TD run. Meanwhile, quarterback Ryan Ralston has been able to surge ahead through the middle on QB-follows and has no trouble dropping back into space and stepping into long throws up the sideline to Luke Curtis. Between Ralston and Wilkins, the Jags have 38 rushing touchdowns and more than 2,500 yards. Still, the real key for BV West might be a steadily improving defense led by Alex Norris and Cale McMakin.
About Bishop Miege: The Stags haven’t given up on the run, but it’s clear the decision has been made to put the season on Cozart’s right arm now that the postseason has arrived. He went 20 for 30 for 227 yards with two touchdowns in the playoff win against Mill Valley. The final stats look balanced with Miege rushing 26 times, but Cozart had 12 of those carries for 86 yards – and many came on designed passing plays that the Kansas commit improvised when things broke down. Against Aquinas in the district title game, Cozart attempted 57 passes with only 16 run plays. Given his success throwing the ball in the first meeting with BV West, when Cozart completed 28 of 45 passes for 371 yards with five TDs against one interception, expect the Stags to air it out again. Meanwhile, Bradley Ivey, Alec Friesen and the rest of the Miege linebackers should expect a few encounters with Ralston and Wilkins.
Prediction: BV West 48, Bishop Miege 35
Palmer’s prognostications: East Kansas League: 5-1 last week; 29-22 overall; Sunflower League: 3-1 last week; 49-14 overall
| Tod Palmer, email@example.com