Even with defending state champion status, Lawrence High baseball coach David Petry says his team enters this weekend's Class 6A state tournament at Hoglund Ballpark with a new identity.
The Lions, the No. 5 seed with a 14-8 record, will face No. 4 seed Topeka Washburn Rural (13-7) at 11 a.m. today in the first of four quarterfinal games.
"This is a different group," said Petry, who guided the Lions to the state title last year. "We're going into it as an underdog. If things hold and we get through the first game we're going to be an underdog all the way through. I think that means less pressure than last year. I think that has shown in practice. The kids seem relaxed, but yet they seem confident."
The Lions, a state qualifier for the 11th time in the program's 16-year history, have had staying power in postseason. Since 1995, LHS has reached the state semifinals four times and the finals three times, including two state titles.
Four starters are back from last year's LHS squad junior center fielder Rob Scott, junior shortstop Chris Johnson, junior catcher Troy Wingert and senior Brandon Bingham. Bingham, who played third base for LHS last year, is scheduled to start on the mound today against the Junior Blues.
Bingham, a New Mexico signee, has a 4-2 record with a 2.45 ERA. He has struck out 37 batters in 40 innings. He threw a complete game in the Lions' 5-4 win over top-ranked Manhattan in the Class 6A regional final. Sophomore Ryan Rowland, also 4-2, will be the second Lion pitcher used.
"Our pitchers have given us a chance to win every ball game this year," Petry said of his staff, which has a 3.06 ERA. "I have a lot of confidence with the six pitchers we're going into this tournament with. I hope we get to a third game, where it comes down to who's got pitching depth because I think that's an advantage for us."
Junior Blair Johnson (5-2, 2.10 ERA) is Washburn Rural's scheduled starting pitcher. The Junior Blues are at state for the first time since 1993. Johnson is second on the team with a .380 batting average. Junior outfielder Justin Smiley leads Rural at .438.
LHS last met Washburn Rural in last year's Class 6A regional final at Ice Field. LHS won 6-5 when Wingert delivered the game-winning single in the bottom of the sixth. Wingert has been thriving at the plate lately.
"Troy Wingert has really been hitting the ball well," Petry said. "I figured it up the other day that he's hitting .461 the last four games. I don't think it was anything mechanical with his swing early in the season. I think it was his mentality with how he approached it."
LHS, batting .304 as a team, is led by Derek Bailey (.391), Joe Bell (.386), Damon Benitez (.350) and Scott (.345).
Benitez said the Lions didn't sneak up on anybody this season.
"I don't think we surprised as many people this year as we did last year," Benitez said. "Last year made other teams want to beat us that much more this year."
The LHS-Rural winner will play the Derby-Overland Park Aquinas winner at 10 a.m. Saturday. The state final is 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
Tournament ticket prices: Admission to today's state baseball games is $5 for adults and $4 for students kindergarten through 12th grade. That covers the costs of all four games. On Saturday, admission is $6 for adults and $5 for students kindergarten through 12th grade. That also covers the costs of all Saturday games.