Manhattan A 1-3 start to the season didn't bode well for Lawrence High's softball team.
Yet, 16 games later, LHS coach Rennie Stogsdill thinks her team has a great shot at its first Class 6A state tournament berth since 2000.
"I thought after our first few doubleheaders this year that it was going to be a long season," Stogsdill said. "But we've come together as a team, our pitchers have gotten more confident, and we're playing well together."
The Lions (11-9) will play Junction City (5-13) at 3 p.m. today in Manhattan, while Free State will (5-15) play host Manhattan (12-6) at 3 p.m.
The winners will play at 4:30 p.m. for the championship and a trip May 30 to Wichita.
"We've got a good draw, and I like where we're at," Stogsdill said. "We've got a good chance to get where we want to go."
LHS narrowly missed state last year, losing to Manhattan, 2-1, in the regional final. The Lions, who feature just three seniors, closed the season strong with doubleheader splits against defending state champ Shawnee Mission Northwest, Olathe North and intracity rival Free State.
For a young team, it's been nice ride -- that could be extended.
LHS will start sophomore Whitney Juneau on the mound, who, along with steady hitters Drew Huff, Courtney Taulbert and Danielle Huff, has been one of the keys to the Lions' late-season surge.
But if the Lions are young, that makes the Firebirds newborns.
FSHS has just one senior and half of its varsity roster is either sophomores or freshmen. Still, that doesn't mean FSHS coach Pam Pine isn't optimistic about her team's chances.
After all, the Firebirds closed the regular season with a resounding 7-1 win against LHS.
"It's just a matter of which one of my teams show up," Pine said. "If we play the way we played against Lawrence High, we'll play well and have a chance to win. If we played the way we played against Shawnee Mission East, it's a different story."
The Firebirds, who never have been to the state tournament, beat Emporia in last year's regional opener, then lost to Topeka Washburn Rural, 5-0 in the finals.
Without a dominant team in the regional, Pine thinks anything could happen.
"Manhattan isn't as strong as they have been in the past," Pine said. "They're usually pretty strong on the mound, but they don't seem to have that this year."
Neither coach did any speculating on a possible LHS-FSHS title game, but with good reason -- neither team wants to overlook its first round opponent.
"I learned a long time ago when I started coaching that you gotta prepare for that first game like it's going to be your only game or there won't be another," Stogsdill said.