Lions beat Free State in 25th annual City Showdown

LHS stifles Free State comeback to win their second straight football City Showdown

By Jack Ritter, Reporter

The highly-anticipated 25th annual City Showdown on Friday, Oct. 22 between Lawrence High School and Lawrence Free State High School was a spectacle. After a strong LHS start, momentum swayed back and forth before the Lions triumphed 27-19.

In an interview earlier that week, senior captain linebacker Evan Bannister said that a strong start was key for the Lions. And the Lions did just that.

After a Firebird kickoff to start the game, senior running back Shance Wilkerson and senior quarterback Truman Juelsgaard connected for a 66-yard pass to convert the Lions’ first 3rd down of the game.

“It was a great start,” said Wilkerson. “[The] first plays were a little rough, so it was nice to get some energy flowing for the team.”

Just three plays later Wilkerson followed up with a 1-yard TD run to put the Lions up 6-0. Senior kicker Grant Glasgow’s kick uncharacteristically missed, this was his only attempt of 33 PATs to do so this season.

Unlike the Lions’ first drive, Free State had some trouble getting going.

A short, 1-minute-long possession and 3-and-out for the Firebirds led to a punt attempt. But after junior wide receiver Sam Sedo got into the backfield and blocked the punt, wide receiver Kivryen Heck grabbed the ball off the ground and ran it in for a 27-yard touchdown to put the Lions up 13-0 just four minutes into the game.

The teams traded short drives to finish the first quarter and start the second, but the Firebirds weren’t going to let themselves be blown out.

Their senior dual-threat quarterback Jet Dineen exploded down the sideline for a massive gain of 85 yards. The run cheered up the LFSHS fans, who had been rather quiet up to that point, and suddenly the Firebirds were back in it.

The Lions were determined to halt any change in momentum before the end of the half. Wilkerson caught a wide-open pass for 41 yards bringing the Lions to the 5-yard line with just over a minute left in the half.

In an interview with the Lawrence Journal-World, Wilkerson spoke about his mentality during the game.

“[Holes] were hard to find, but I knew my line was gonna stick their foot in the ground and push back,” he said. “I just kept my shoulders down and ran the ball.”

Junior running-back Brayden Heck ran in a touchdown to put the Lions up 19-7, but rather than kick a PAT the Lions attempted a 2-point conversion to cover up for their missed extra point earlier in the game. However, the Free State defense stopped the Lions, shifting some momentum back in the Firebird’s favor again.

The first half finished off with a Free State fumble deep in their own territory. The Lions attempted to score a touchdown with 0.7 seconds remaining rather than kicking a field goal. But the Firebird defense made a quick tackle to end the half.

The first half was capitalized by a quick start from the offense, accompanied by a lockdown defensive performance.

“Malique Morris-Ramirez (SR) won off the edge consistently,” said defensive coordinator Jeffery Lyster. “Kenton Simmons (JR) has stepped up a lot at middle linebacker, and we’ve really learned to trust Zeric Avery (SR) at corner. But the two guys we (LHS) can always count on are Evan Bannister (SR) and Keyan Crawford (SR). They’re always helping the defense line up and check themselves before plays.”

To start the second half, Free State methodically drove down the field behind Dineen and senior running back Dash Cleveland, but Dineen stepped out of bounds at the Lions’ 19 just before reaching the first-down marker on a long 4th-down play leading to a turnover on downs.

The Free State defense didn’t allow much yardage and forced an LHS punt. Before Glasgow could get the ball, junior long snapper Tate Meyer snapped the ball over Glasgow’s head to cause a safety and give the ball back to Free State alongside two points.

Only down 19-9, the Firebird offense started cooking.

They drove down to the Lions’ 29-yard line before a long touchdown run by Dineen shortened Free State’s deficit to only three points.

The Firebirds, swelling with momentum, got another stop on defense. And a 51-yard gain from Dineen set up a 25-yard Adam Coup field goal to tie the game at 19 starting off the fourth quarter.

The Lions had a tough quarter, but Lyster and head coach Clint Bowen knew the Lions weren’t out of it.

“Defensively we knew we had to get a stop,” Bowen said. “Jet [Dineen] had some nice single-handed plays up to that point, so we knew what was going on there. On the offensive side of the ball, we knew we had some bullets in the chamber. So we were ready to strike.”

Juelsgaard took the reins of the offense, exploiting Free State’s defensive scheme with multiple runs to break into Free State territory with three minutes to play.

“Coach Bowen had a nice game plan,” Juelsgaard said. “We rolled with it because they played a 4-1 box and couldn’t cover all of us. I just used my legs.”

But the Free State defense began to pick up ground, forcing a massive 3rd and 12 with about two minutes to play.

Juelsgaard scrambled to his right and threw a rainbow pass, off his back foot, under pressure. As the ball soared through the air, the crowd went silent, but junior tight end Cole Watson was ready.

“Cole Watson made the play of the game,” Bowen said. “He was the star of that offense on a few key plays.”

Watson leaped up to catch the pass, tapping his toes in bounds on the Firebird 3-yard line with just a minute and a half to play. Setting up a Wilkerson 2-yard touchdown run.

“The ball was supposed to go to the tailback, so I just floated to the endzone,” he said. “But Truman had to scramble, so I just tried to get open. The ball went up and everything went silent and in slow motion. It was crazy.”

Rather than kicking the PAT to go up by seven, the Lions decided to go for two in an attempt to seal the game.

“Our starting long snapper [Tate Meyer] was hurt,” Bowen said. “And an opportune penalty on them [Free State] heightened our chances of making that play.”

The east side of the stands erupted as Wilkerson ran into the endzone once again for the two-point conversion.

The Lions were on the verge of their second straight City Showdown victory. Up by eight with 1:23 to play, Coach Lyster knew the stellar Lions defense could get the job done.

“We only made a few adjustments,” Lyster said. “A lot of teams would’ve changed their defensive scheme to one defending against passes. But what we’ve seen is that number 12 is the most talented guy on that [Free State] squad, and we just had to keep him in front of us to get it done.”

The Firebirds drove down the field on long pass plays and eventually reached the Lions’ 23-yard line with just five seconds left.

As time expired, Dineen aired out the ball to the corner of the endzone, but senior Jordan Brown couldn’t pull it in.

Another last-second game and another last-second win for the Lions. The week prior, LHS had beaten Olathe North High School on a game-winning field goal, but fans weren’t allowed to rush the field. But at home against your biggest rival, things were different.

As the sideline full of Lions players rushed the field, so did the eager fans coming from the stands. Players, fans, students and parents embraced after a hard-fought win and an excellent regular season.

The win capped off a strong start to Clint Bowen’s high school coaching career, and it was absolutely massive for him.

“It’s a big win for our players and the program,” he said. “A lot of these kids are involved in extracurriculars with Free State guys, and others are good friends with them. So it’s really big for those guys. The win was also good to catch the eyes of talented middle schoolers who have the choice between either LFSHS and LHS for their high school career.”

The win was also huge for Lyster, who received the game ball from defensive line coach Blake Mudd. Lyster has been with LHS for about a decade, and in the 25-year history between LHS and LFSHS, LHS had never won at the stadium constructed in 2009.

“The past couple of wins we’ve had during my time here, we have had the much more talented team,” Coach Lyster said. “So it was absolutely huge to get our first home win and beat a more talented team this year.”

The Lions look onward to the playoffs as the sixth seed in the west. On Friday, Oct. 29 they’ll host the Topeka High School Trojans who boast junior Free State transfer quarterback Peyton Wheat.

“Five games left. We just want to add a trophy to the case this year,” said Juelsgaard.

Lyster noted the road to a state trophy isn’t easy for the Lions, but they’re up for the challenge.

“We’ve got a tough road ahead,” he said, “but we wouldn’t want it any other way. Why not us?”

Improvement is the name of the game as the Lions stare down the challenge of the playoffs.

“We’ve been improving every week, this week we improved, and last week the same,” Bowen said. “We’re looking at week nine [Topeka High] to be an improvement. If we maintain that increase, we can make a run.”