What a difference a year made for Free State.
The Firebirds underwent battles with COVID and a winless campagin in 2020, but rebounded with an 8-3 record and a trip to the Kansas Class 6A quarterfinals under Kevin Stewart in 2021.
Free State will have to replace a lot from the 2021 team, but still aims to replicate its success again in 2022.
"The early theme is going to be new faces in new places," said Stewart, in his fourth year at FSHS. "Although we are not returning a lot of varsity experienced players at the skill position, this is pretty common after a successful season with a successful outgoing graduating senior class. Our success this season will be determined by how quickly the new starters can learn their roles and compete at a high level."
The one area that Free State does return starters is key - on the offensive line. All-state selection Calvin Clements (6-foot-7, 290) returns at left tackle, where the senior ranks as the seventh overall recruit in Kansas by On3, and has committed to Baylor.
Joining Clements will be senior center Will Young (5-foot-11, 220), junior guard Hank Fuchs (6-foot-3, 265) and senior right tackle Kaden Leonard (6-foot-6, 295). Junior Will Young (5-foot-11, 215) and senior Spencer Doan (6-foot-5, 240) will round out the line.
"Despite all the turnover, there is a silver lining," Stewart touted. "We will rely on our offensive early and often in 2022."
Taking the helm at quarterback will be Wesley Edison. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior "is a big strong athlete and looks to lead the way."
Tay Ware, a 5-foot-9, 190-pound senior, returns at running back after picking up 301 rushing yards on 75 carries, including three touchdowns.
"Tay is a very talented high school running back with good vision, power and speed," Stewart touted. "If Tay can stay healthy, he is going to have a great season."
Junior Devon Hamilton (5-foot-9, 165) and sophomore Brailin Preston (6-0, 175), along with tight end Doan, will catch passes from Edison. Senior Dylan Farrel (5-foot-9, 170) also will contribute at different spots on offense.
Defensively, Free State brings back a pair of senior linebackers in Colton Berger (6-foot-1, 185), who notched 63 tackles in 2021, and Gavin Blanchard (6-foot-2, 215). Senior Gordon Vaeono (5-foot-11, 230), junior Coby Ochsner (6-0, 185) and sophomore Parker Moore (6-foot-1, 180) also will patrol at linebacker.
Up front, Fuchs will line up at defensive tackle and Doan at defensive end. Newcomers at varsity will be senior Braxton Blanck (6-foot-4, 260), senior Matthew Marcum (6-foot-2, 210) and soph Blaine Larkin (6-foot-4, 200) will fill out the trenches.
In the secondary, Edison leads the way at strong safety, while Farrel will man cornerback. Junior Tyler Jeffries (5-foot-11, 180) and senior Adam Coup (6-foot-1, 185) also will defend passes in the secondary.
"We have a lot of newcomers, but have some talent and players ready to get going," Stewart said.
Also, 810 Varsity will team up with KLWN to bring Free State and Lawrence games video broadcasts live online again in 2022.