A summer full of rain cancellations, run-rule wins and run-rule defeats has reached the most important week for the American Legion Lawrence Raiders baseball squad.
Starting today, Free State High will be home of the American Legion Zone Tournament, and the Raiders will attempt to make another appearance at state and extend their state championship run to five consecutive years.
They will start the double-elimination tournament at 6 p.m. today against Osage County, a team they defeated, 8-0, at the Emporia Tournament earlier in the year.
"We're excited. We feel like we've got a great opportunity to do our best," Raiders coach Shaun Edmondson said. "Most of these guys have played in big games. The Lawrence guys played at the state tournament, the kids that played for the Raiders last year went through all these types of things. ... We've been playing well lately, building momentum for this week. We feel like we're prepared."
Fortunately for the Raiders, they have four members from last year's team that advanced all the way to the Legion World Series: Kyle Cross, Patrick Johnson, John Novotny and Daniel Green.
"We keep telling them (the younger players), you want to go into the game playing loose, not afraid to make a mistake and playing to win because you don't want to play not to lose. That's when you make your errors," Cross said. "So just take every play like you know you can make the play to succeed."
With the Raiders tallying nearly 10 run-rule victories this year, their opponents will focus on shutting down the high-powered offense.
"We know we're going to get a lot of curve balls because we've gotten a reputation for being a good hitting team," Cross said. "But we're going to focus on the fastballs and hit curve balls when we have two strikes."
While the Raiders are known for their bats, they also have a stockpile of pitchers to use this weekend.
"We have a lot of pitching, but it's always good to save arms so that our best guys can pitch the games we need to win, rather than pitch our best guy the first day then give him just one day's rest and pitch him again," Hunter Scheib said. "We'd rather have our best guys rest until Saturday and Sunday and have their full capability of doing what they're able to do."
Edmondson plans to go with Joe Kornbrust as his starting pitcher against Osage County, with Caleb Gress slotted to pitch in Friday's game.
"Drew Hulse and Preston Scheibler along with the other guys will be all hands on deck for if we have to use guys out of the pen," Edmondson said. "These are nine-inning games, and our guys are used to seven-inning games, so it will be a little different game."
Edmondson will have Green waiting in the wings to potentially pitch in the championship game.
Cross, not trying to sound cliche, said he'd learned from experience that early victories are key in a four-team bracket.
"The first two games, you've got to win because those are huge," Cross said. "You get those first two wins, and then you're set. But the first game is most important to get our confidence up by getting the first tourney win in the playoffs, and that'll really boost our confidence for the young guys."