If the game plays out at all the way the coaches talked about it beforehand, today's intracity showdown between Lawrence High's and Free State's baseball teams should be close all the way.
As LHS coach Brad Stoll and Free State coach Mike Hill fielded questions about what today's 6 p.m. game at Ice Field means to their clubs, their answers invoked images of a closely contested ballgame.
When asked what the key to the victory might be, both pinpointed three areas.
"If you're going to beat a good team like Lawrence High, you have to be good in all facets of the game," said Hill of expecting solid hitting, pitching and defense. "You can't just hang your hat on one of them and hope that's good enough to win."
"You gotta swing it, you gotta catch it and you gotta throw it," he said.
Both coaches also tapped mistake-free baseball as the most crucial aspect likely to decide the outcome.
"Errors in baseball are the cousin to turnovers in football," Stoll said. "If you can minimize those mistakes and win the defensive battle, then you put yourself in a better position to win the game."
Hill's thoughts about avoiding errors leaked over to both sides of the diamond.
"You have to minimize your mistakes and maximize your ability to take advantage of the mistakes of the other club," Hill said.
Lastly, although both coaches admitted they understood of why this game - more than any other - receives the hype it does, both said they wouldn't put any extra emphasis on the city showdown.
"To be very candid, we do not," Hill said. "We've played an awful lot of big games here in the past few years, and this is not the state championship game. I think it will be fun for the players, and we'll probably have a bigger crowd, so that adds something to it. But in terms of putting more emphasis on the game because it's Lawrence High, we won't do that."
Once again, Stoll agreed and said the Lions (2-4) would approach today's battle with the Firebirds (6-0) as an opportunity to build momentum.
"We don't throw a certain guy or stack it differently because it's Free State," Stoll said. "We all know how it's gone in the past. It is a big game. But our whole goal every year is to win five games in May and play for a state championship."
In 2007, Lawrence High took the series against Free State, winning two games to one, including a thriller in the regional final that sent LHS to state and eventually on to a second-place finish.
Stoll said he hoped a good showing today would get his team believing a similar run is possible this season. With junior Dorian Green slated to start on the mound, Stoll said the Lions would bring their A-game against the Firebirds.
Leading the charge will be shortstop Aaron Rea, who tops LHS in batting average around .400, senior catcher Chase Muder, who has provided strong, early-season leadership, and third baseman Clint Pinnick, who brings relentless effort and intensity each day. Add into that the key play of first baseman/closer Joe Kornbrust, and you're looking at a team with a few established studs.
Still, Stoll said the Lions continue to fidget with their lineup, and he hopes today's game brings out the best in some of his lesser-known players.
"The intracity battle gives kids the opportunity to shine," Stoll said. "This is an awesome opportunity for our kids to step up, and I've told them all along that we have to beat great teams if we want to be great."
After a highly successful stint in Oklahoma to open the season, the Firebirds enter today's game unbeaten and fresh off a 16-6 victory over Leavenworth on Monday.
Unlike in past years, when the Firebirds have been known as more of a power-hitting team, this year's group has done the job on the base paths.
"We can really run," Hill said. "And that's something new for us. In the past, we didn't have to run as much. We always hit ourselves in."
Today, though, the Firebirds are beating teams with their speed, most of which is stacked at the top of a potent lineup.
Leadoff hitter Adam Rock typically sets the tone, with switch-hitting seniors Jordan Dreiling and Hunter Scheib following in the Nos. 2 and 3 spots. Clean-up hitter John Wilson leads the team with a .500 batting average, and senior catcher E.J. Swanson has done his share of damage from the five-hole.
Although the Firebirds are off to a hot start, Hill said he sees room for improvement and expects his team to be up for today's challenge.
"We've played reasonably well so far," he said. "We've done what's necessary to win at this stage of the season."
Senior southpaw Caleb Gress is expected to start on the mound for the Firebirds.
Today's single game will count for both teams in the league standings and will be preceded by a brief ceremony honoring former LHS standout Kevin Hooper, who went on to play collegiately at Wichita State University and in the Major Leagues with several teams, including the Kansas City Royals, New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers.
Hooper will toss out the first pitch and watch as a banner with his high school jersey number is unveiled on the center-field fence.