For the second consecutive year, Free State High will travel to Manhattan for a Class 6A baseball regional to face the top-ranked Indians.
The Firebirds (5-15 and the No. 8 seed) will meet No. 1 Manhattan (17-1) at 4:30 p.m. today at Eisenhower Middle School's Norvell Field.
"They're very talented," said fourth-year Firebird coach Mike Hill, whose squad lost 3-1 to Manhattan last year in the first round of regionals. "Offensively they're hitting around .430. I don't care what level that's at, even if it's 6-year-old baseball, that's an amazing statistic and they run the bases well. Defensively they are sound. Pitching is a strong suit of theirs and they have the intangibles of a good team."
In the first regional semifinal today, No. 4 Lawrence High (12-8) will play No. 5 Topeka (7-13) at 2 p.m. The FSHS-Manhattan winner will play the Lawrence-Topeka winner in the regional championship at 7 tonight.
The Firebirds, trying for their first state berth, are hitting .311, the best mark in the program's four-year history. Sophomore shortstop Matt Berner (.416) and freshman third baseman Kyle Unruh (.364) lead Free State.
Junior lefty Eric Peterson (3-4) is scheduled to start on the mound for Free State. Peterson has won his last three outings, including a 3-2 decision over Lawrence last week.
"We feel comfortable with him on the mound," Hill said. "His success on the mound has been large for us, but it takes nine or 10 players to get the win. We have to have other people play too. We can't put it all on his left arm, but we always like our chances with him on the mound."
Free State's defense seems to play better with Peterson on the mound.
"He's not going to walk a lot of people and he pitches with a rhythm," Hill said. "Despite not having a clock in baseball, we have to play with a rhythm and pace. He does that. He keeps hitters on their toes. We do play better defense behind him. It shouldn't always be that way, but it happens."
The Lions, the defending state champion, won 10 of their final 14 games in the regular season. LHS has qualified for state 10 times since its program began in 1986.
Either senior Brandon Bingham (3-2) or sophomore Ryan Rowland (3-2) will start on the mound for LHS today, Lion coach David Petry said.
The Lions are hitting .297. Derek Bailey (.379), Joe Bell and Damon Benitez (.352) are the top LHS hitters.
LHS beat Topeka, 6-2, in a regional opener last year at Holcom Park.
Regional finals have been good for LHS. The Lions are 10-0 all time in the championship games.
The Class 6A state tournament is May 25-26 at Kansas University's Hoglund Ballpark.