Entering Saturday afternoon's home doubleheader, Free State High's softball team never had defeated Shawnee Mission Northwest. Despite that skid, this year's edition brimmed with confidence.
"We all believed that we could do it," pitcher Catherine Smith said. "The past years we've been a little intimidated."
The self-assured Firebirds swept the doubleheader against Northwest, winning 1-0 and 4-2.
The first game was won by employing a small-ball strategy. During the fourth inning, Aleese Kopf delivered a single, the team's first hit of the game. Maggie Hull followed with a bunt single, and Livi Abney moved the runners forward with a sacrifice bunt. Allie Hock notched a bloop single to score Kopf.
"We were saying, 'Whoever blinked first was going to win,'" Free State coach Pam Pine said.
Opting to bunt was a smart decision, considering Free State's speed and the unforgiving playing surface. Wet field conditions forced a one-hour postponement of the game as the school's grounds crew raked the infield. Despite the care given to the field, the ground balls still seemed to sink into the dirt.
"We knew the field was going to be a little rough," Smith said. "We used that to our advantage."
Free State (11-1) also took advantage of Smith's exemplary pitching performance. The junior relied on sharp placement of her dropball to pitch the complete-game three-hitter.
"I hit my spots," Smith said.
The Cougars' starter, Kim Jones, was equally impressive. The University of Arkansas-bound pitcher struck out 12, including seven of the first nine batters, and surrendered four hits.
"She just flat out throws hard," Pine said. "We were whiffing up there pretty bad. That's probably the quickest pitcher we've seen all year."
Jones, who entered the day leading the Sunflower League in strikeouts, also pitched the second game, but Free State had more success against her during the second half of the doubleheader.
During the nightcap, the Firebirds moved up in the batter's box and stayed off Jones' riseball, forcing her to throw balls down in the strike zone.
"The second time around we were ready to go," Maggie Hull said. "We just adjusted."
Catherine's sister, Megan Smith, went three innings for the victory, while Catherine pitched four innings of shutout relief.
On the offensive side, Free State broke the game open during the third inning. With her team trailing 2-1, Kopf led off the inning with a triple. Maggie Hull singled and stole second base. Livi Abney doubled to plate Kopf and Hull. Hock finished the scoring by driving home Abney with a single.
"That was just us coming together as a team," Hull said.
Neither team scored in the next four innings, allowing the Firebirds to end a winless slump against Northwest (8-4) and launch a consecutive wins streak against the talented softball program.
"It's pretty huge for the girls," Pine said. "It's a really good feeling after all their hard work."