It’s one thing to be fast, quite another to be faster than a flying football.
When Lawrence Free State fielded a kickoff on Friday, Derby players often arrived simultaneously. Superior field position is something all teams strive for, but few teams can achieve it so spectacularly.
Free State was no match for Derby’s speed, or many other Panthers components. Derby allowed Friday’s first touchdown, then picked apart Free State in a 49-21 win in a Class 6A semifinal.
Derby advances to next weekend’s Class 6A championship game, where it will defend last season’s title against Blue Valley.
“Special teams can win the game,” said Derby senior linebacker Tommy Carter, part of Derby’s special teams unit. “We’ve got to get down there quick. Everybody’s sprinting. Everybody puts in work because we know that special teams matters. It does.”
Free State fielded three kickoffs in the first quarter on Friday and didn’t start beyond its 19-yard line. The Firebirds were immediately swarmed by multiple defenders granting no concession.
The Firebirds weren’t demoralized right away, traveling 81 yards on their opening series to take a 7-0 lead. By the time two more kickoff returns didn’t reach the 20-yard line, though, Derby had begun the systematic dismantling all opponents have endured during the Panthers’ 12-0 run.
One Free State drive started at the 9-yard line, ended after three plays and was followed by a 49-yard touchdown pass by Dan Dawdy on the first play of a Derby drive. The reception by Michael Littleton put Derby ahead 14-7, part of 35 unanswered points.
“We work at it so much, we might as well be good at it,” Derby coach Brandon Clark said. “We call our special teams Top 11. We platoon on offense and we platoon on defense – we’ve got 22 guys. But when it comes to special teams, we put our top 11 guys at it. They take pride in it.”
Derby’s collective excellence was surpassed only by Dawdy’s early perfection. The senior quarterback completed his first 11 passes for 206 yards and three touchdowns.
Dawdy used receivers Littleton, Kai Lemons and Kenyon Tabor with almost equal regularity – Lemons had two touchdowns, Littleton topped 100 yards and Tabor didn’t score but had 10 receptions for 166 yards.
“We’ve got some special receivers,” Clark said. “I’ll give our receivers that. Dawdy does such a great job of putting the ball where they can catch it. He’s beyond his years of maturity.”
Derby’s defense found the right tone of physicality after Free State’s first drive. Defensive back Alex McGill had a pair of sacks as Derby pressured Free State quarterback Dallas Crittendon and rarely allowed him the rollouts that precede his passes.
The end of the first half was the culmination of Free State’s angst. One player drew consecutive unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and was ejected, while the sideline was also penalized along with Derby’s Peerlus Walker.
Clark chided his team for the brief loss of composure during a halftime huddle and Derby quickly regained its balance, scoring on two of its first three second-half drives to take a 49-14 lead.
“It was getting a little bit chippy, a little bit emotional – both teams,” Clark said. “That’s not in our game plan and that’s not who we are.”
The postgame scene was just as wild, but without the tension. After Clark’s speech, in which he restated Derby’s preseason goal of repeating as 6A champion, he turned the players loose to celebrate with students.
The players who didn’t immediately find a partying partner were quickly surrounded by many revelers. In Derby’s final home game, the Panthers earned a chance to play one more time.
“We know we’re not done, but to go out (at home) like this tonight, it’s good,” Carter said. “It’s a real family here. It’s a little emotional, but it’s good.”
FS—Sanders 9 pass from Crittendon (Lake kick)
D—Kooser 7 run (Tullis kick)
D—Littleton 49 pass from Dawdy (Tullis kick)
D—Lemons 7 pass from Dawdy (Tullis kick)
D—Lemons 15 pass from Dawdy (Tullis kick)
D—Dawdy 2 run (Tullis kick)
FS—Bowlin 3 run (Lake kick)
D—Kooser 15 run (Tullis kick)
D—Kooser 10 run (Tullis kick)
FS—Foster 6 run (Lake kick)
Rushing—Free State, Foster 10-60, Bowlin 10-53, Nash 3-9, Dineen 2-3, Crittendon 6-(-24); Derby, Kooser 14-67, Igo 5-37, Dawdy 12-17, Lemons 2-9, Syring 2-(-3).
Passing—Free State, Crittendon 9-25-0-133; Derby, Dawdy 21-28-0-343.
Receiving—Free State, Sanders 5-97, Foster 2-13, Bryant 1-15, Rittman 1-8; Derby, Tabor 10-166, Lemons 6-67, Littleton 5-110.