The five-hour road trip is a familiar one by now for Lawrence High's baseball team.
Players cram into four vans like sardines every March, packing their gloves, uniforms and aluminum bats for the sunshine of Oklahoma and the first games of the season. The Sooner State's top high school teams await.
LHS coach Brad Stoll says he does it so his team can get in three games on consecutive days early in the season, similar to the state-tournament format in May.
He does it because teams like Stillwater (Okla.) High, the Lions' first opponent, are in midseason form by mid-March, having begun practices the first week of January - 21â2 months before LHS.
But really, he does it because he wants his players to witness a level of play unlike most they will see during the regular season.
"They're so far ahead in skill level," Stoll said of Oklahoma's prep teams.
It's not lack of talent or other states' early start dates that are holding Kansas ballplayers back, though. Rather, coaches say it's the lack of game opportunities allotted for the state's high school teams.
While Stillwater scheduled 11 scrimmages and nine regular-season games before Lawrence played once, the Pioneers still had more games remaining than LHS would play in its entire season. Last year, Stillwater played 36 games and didn't make the playoffs. The Lions, meanwhile, lost in the state semifinals after just 23 games.
Numbers like those have coaches crying foul.
"It's totally ridiculous," Stoll said.
Even Stillwater coach Gary Gardner marveled at the predicament.
"Compared to you guys, we have a good deal," Gardner said of the disparity. "I can't imagine playing the schedule that Lawrence and the schools in Kansas play and trying to get everyone playing time."
Perhaps, then, it's fitting Lawrence lost this year's season opener to Stillwater, 10-6. Because when it comes to keeping pace with high school baseball around the Midwest, teams in Kansas - like the Lions on opening day in Oklahoma - have been playing from behind for quite some time.
A clear discrepancy
The frustration is palpable in Rocky Helm's voice as he pleads his case over the phone.
"I want high school baseball to be important to kids here," Helm says.
A former president of the Kansas Association of Baseball Coaches and current Maize High baseball coach, Helm has been grappling with the right way to get his message across: Twenty regular-season games for his guys just isn't enough. Not with what is transpiring in surrounding states.
There's Oklahoma, which is allowed 22 games, plus three tournaments, totaling around 35 games per season. There's Nebraska, which has no schedule limit but typically plays 35. There's Missouri, which plays an 18-game, two-tournament schedule amounting to at least 26 games and Texas, with its 19-game, two-tournament format.
Heck, even high schools in Iowa - which has much harsher weather than Kansas - play into the summer and total more than 35 games.
"Kids just aren't getting the opportunity to develop here," Helm said.
That shortened schedule is of concern because it doesn't allow everyone on the team playing time, according to Stoll.
"When you've got 20 games, you can't really mess around with trying to find the right lineup," Stoll said. "Before you know it, it's the middle of April and you're three weeks from the postseason. You've got to go with the nine or 10 guys that are going to get you to the postseason."
The wide gap in game opportunities also has affected the state's players in another department - recruiting.
"A lot of scouts I talk to haven't been exposed to the game situation here as much as people in surrounding states," Helm said. "If you get a quality kid from Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, they're going to look south because they've had the opportunity to be in more game situations."
Kansas University baseball coach Ritch Price doesn't disagree one bit.
"It's completely evident in ability levels when you look at players in other states," Price said.
According to Price, all three Division I programs in Kansas, including Kansas State and Wichita State, would love to recruit more in-state athletes.
"But you also have to recruit kids that are physically gifted enough to play," Price added.
Of the 37 players on KU's current roster, only eight are from Kansas, with six from Lawrence.
Making a proposal
Helm knew something needed to change in order to get more games. So he came up with a plan.
In March of 2007, he suggested there be a point system used for both baseball and softball, not to exceed 46 points in a single season. For example, a single game would count as two points, a doubleheader three and a tournament five points (with a maximum of six games allowed in a tournament). Schools would have the flexibility to create a schedule that played anywhere between 20 and 36 games.
Helm was hopeful that school administrators would vote in favor of the move, sending the final evaluation on to the 76-member Kansas State High School Activities Association's board of directors.
Helm - and the rest of the state's high school baseball and softball coaches - waited seven months for a decision from school administrators.
Nearly 70 percent said no.
According to Fran Martin, KSHAA's assistant executive director who oversees baseball and softball, the decision hinged on one big factor.
"The frustration of administration is we're trying to cram all these games into basically six weeks," Martin said of a season that ends by Memorial Day. "Every time we have a rain out, you can't find a make-up date, find umpires or a venue to play the make-up game. We have 20 games now that we have a hard time getting in. How are we going to get any more games in?"
Martin said pushing the season back into the summer was not an option because it would interfere with American Legion and AAU circuits. That has left administrators in quite a quandary.
Lawrence High athletic director Ron Commons and principal Steve Nilhas were among those who rejected the proposal. Commons said he wouldn't mind seeing high school teams play more games, but the decision was more complicated than that. From a financial standpoint, additional home games would cost another $200 to pay for umpire fees, according to Commons.
"What compounds this is you also have 20 games for JV and 20 games for, in our case, C Team," Commons said. "So you're talking all levels that would have to be added. You can't say only the varsity kids get to play more games, because that doesn't happen in any other sports."
Stuck at an impasse
Despite the protests, adding games strictly to varsity programs may be the only solution.
Free State High baseball coach Mike Hill is on both sides of the coaching and administration coin. As the school's assistant principal, athletic director and a KSHAA board member, Hill offered a different perspective. He said it was incumbent on the state's coaches association to do a better job of putting together its proposal. Last year's version would have added games to every level.
"Do I think that will happen?" Hill said. "No way. We would have a much better opportunity to get a proposal passed if it only addressed games at a varsity level.
"The challenge for administrators becomes, 'How do you budget for more games?' If it was just at one level, there would probably be pretty strong support."
Perhaps the biggest problem with the state's current format, according to Hill, is that it leaves little to no room for scheduling adjustments because all 20 games must be played. When weather forces postponements, teams have a limited number of days to reschedule. Lawrence High, for example, managed to play only 19 regular-season games last year.
Hill said he was in favor of a format that featured over-scheduling of varsity nonconference games to avoid that problem - similar to the way other Midwestern states schedule games.
"I don't think there is that pressure to make up games then," Hill said. "You're not so protective of losing a game, because you've got more."
But unless coaches and administrators somehow can meet each other halfway on all these issues, things aren't likely to change anytime soon.
Until then, Stoll will continue to trudge his team to Oklahoma to play against the best competition he can find.
College coaches will continue to recruit more ballplayers from states playing nearly twice as many games.
And Helm will continue to submit proposals.
Just last month, he sent in a new version, reducing the point system from 46 to 39. It is a plan that includes over-scheduling nonconference games to alleviate weather concerns. Athletic directors and school administrators would have the choice to limit those extra games to varsity or expand at all levels. The proposal would allow teams to schedule up to 28 games, including two tournaments, and will be up for review again in October.
When asked if he thought his revisions would make much of a difference, Helm paused.
"I'd love to say yes," Helm said, "but I'm going to keep fighting anyway to see if we can get something done for the kids in the state."