It was quite a way to advance to the second day. Frustrated, fortunate, deflated, pumped -- what emotion wasn't felt Friday by the Free State High baseball team?
In the end, the thrill of victory outweighed them all. Free State's feeling it, beating Blue Valley West 3-2 in eight innings of clean, thrilling Class 6A state baseball at Hoglund Ballpark. With the win, Free State heads to the state semifinals for the first time in school history.
It didn't look promising after Free State stalled several times Friday, but the Firebirds finally peaked in the seventh inning.
"Our kids did not stop," FSHS coach Mike Hill said. "We left 12 guys on base. Are you kidding me? And they just didn't quit."
Indeed, the Firebirds stranded a disheartening dozen runners, giving Blue Valley West pitcher Nick Czyz a way out of every sticky situation.
In fact, it was amazing how Czyz escaped jams again and again. The BV West junior pitched six innings, walked nine, worked way too many counts full and threw an astronomical 140 pitches. But until his last inning of work, he still had a shutout.
Free State (20-3) loaded the bases in the third, fourth and fifth innings, yet couldn't score in any of them. The most painful was a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the fourth that resulted in a double play and a strikeout.
Czyz struck out eight batters, and a combination of location and changing speeds made him effective against one of the best offenses in Kansas.
But Free State was ready to burst, and after an Anthony Dreiling RBI single in the sixth made it 2-1, the Firebirds came through.
After Brett Lisher was beaned on the first offering from new pitcher Lance Hoge in the seventh, he advanced to second on a well-placed sacrifice bunt from Scott Heitshusen then advanced to third on a Jake Hoover groundout. With two outs and the season at stake, senior Keaton Mishler, hitting eighth in the lineup, stroked a clean, clutch single to center field to tie the score at 2.
"You sit fastball because he hadn't thrown a breaking ball for a strike," Mishler said. "I knew what he was coming with."
As the home team, the edge turned dramatically in the Firebirds' favor after Mishler tied the game. Seemed everyone in Free State's dugout knew it, too.
"That might be the biggest hit of the year," senior Ryne Price said. "Once he did that, our whole team knew we were going to win it."
Junior Max Ellenbecker, who pitched brilliantly after surrendering two runs in a shaky first inning, succumbed to reliever Jake Hoover in the eighth, but BV West (18-5) still threatened to score with two outs and a runner on third.
After first baseman Nick McCoy walked, BV West coach John McDonald had McCoy stray away from first to attract the defense's attention. In many circumstances, McCoy's distraction of the defense is enough for the lead runner, Hoge, to sneak home from third base.
But Free State was prepared, and got Hoge into a rundown between third and home after a lot of teasing by both teams. Catcher Ryne Price chased Hoge back to third and made a diving tag to record the out and end the inning.
With the top of the batting order due up in the bottom of the eighth, the game favored Free State. After Tyler Blankenship walked and advanced to second on a Dreiling sacrifice bunt, Robby Price walked and Ryne Price ended the game by drilling a breaking ball into the gap in right-center field, scoring Blankenship.
Price, one of the most feared hitters in the state, struck out to end a threat in the sixth, but sent BV West home in the eighth with the kind of clutch hitting his teammates are so used to seeing from him.
"Fool him once, but you're not going to fool him twice," Hill said. "That blast was a heck of a hit."
Free State now prepares -- again -- for Maize, which beat Wichita Northwest 8-1 Friday at Hoglund. Maize, which knocked off Free State in last year's state tournament, is the defending state champion.
The Firebirds and Eagles will play at 10 a.m. today at Hoglund Ballpark. Regardless of the outcome, Free State will play again later in the day, either in the 3 p.m. third-place game or 5:30 p.m. championship game.
If storms arise today, however, no state consolation game will be played and the title game will be at 3 p.m. The KSHSAA said in case of bad weather, status of the third-place game would be announced on KLWN-AM (1320).