The year was 1998. Free State's Mike Hill and Lawrence High's Brad Stoll had yet to coach together. Free State not only had not been to a state baseball tournament; the Firebirds hadn't even played a game.
Hill, the Firebirds' first and only head coach, and Stoll, a young, energetic assistant, learned quickly that building a baseball powerhouse from the ground up would be difficult. After one inning of the school's first game, the Firebirds trailed Shawnee Mission South, 10-0.
"That's one of the things I'll always remember about our time together," Hill said. "We started the program from scratch, and after the very first inning, we were down, 10-0."
Seven years after that initial struggle, Stoll and Hill guided their team to the state title game in 2004, where they coached their last game together.
"That just kind of shows how far we came," Hill said.
Both coaches have since gone a step farther. During the summer that followed Free State's loss in the '04 title game, Stoll was named the head coach at Lawrence High, where he has guided the Lions to two state tournament appearances in four years. Hill also added a gem to his resume, leading the Firebirds to the 2006 Class 6A state championship.
Friday, when the top-seeded Firebirds open play in the 2008 state tournament against the eighth-seeded Lions, one coach will move on to the semifinals and the other will swallow hard and wish his friend well.
The depth of the relationship between Hill and Stoll goes far beyond baseball. Their wives teach together at Sunset Hill Elementary School. Their children attended day care together. And in the offseason, they're partners of a camp and clinic business known as MB Baseball.
Tracing the history of this relationship, requires going back to the summer of 1986. Hill, a high school junior playing for Lawrence's American Legion Hawks, was the starting catcher on a state contender. Stoll, a ninth-grader, was the Hawks' bat boy and barely drew attention from the older ballplayers.
"I was a 17-year-old boy," Hill said. "Who our bat boy was was the last thing on my mind."
Hill went on to play baseball in college at Baker University, and Stoll went on to become part of the growing LHS program. Years later, their paths crossed again, this time on the football field.
A year before Free State opened its doors, Hill became the defensive coordinator for current Firebirds football coach Bob Lisher at Blue Valley North. The low man on the totem poll that season was Stoll, who was paid a dollar to join the staff.
That's when Stoll got his first taste of Hill's coaching style. A tough, no-nonsense disciplinarian, the 1987 LHS grad was, and still is, Stoll's polar opposite. Yet, somehow, the two developed a bond. It eventually made its way to the diamond in 1998.
Needing a few bodies to fill out his staff, Hill did not hesitate to hire Stoll, a young, ambitious coach eager to do anything to help the new program.
Stoll did not pause when offered the position, largely because of the encounters he had with Hill on the gridiron. For seven years, the relationship of the two seemingly opposite coaches helped lay the foundation for today's Free State program. Hill credits Stoll for a large part of it. Stoll credits Hill for helping him get where he is today.
"He let me coach," Stoll said. "And I loved that. He didn't want a bunch of 'yes men' around him. He let you coach, and he gave you the freedom to have an opinion."
Occasionally, Hill had to pull in the reins on the fiery Stoll.
During one Free State loss, Stoll rode the umpire hard from the dugout. With sunflower seeds flying and Stoll's criticism cutting through the air, Hill calmly looked over and told his assistant to settle down.
"Even though he agreed with me, he told me I couldn't do that," Stoll said. "He didn't yell at me, he didn't show me up, he just told me I couldn't do that. So I shut my mouth and went back to holding my clipboard."
Another time - against Lawrence High - Stoll was accused of trying to steal the Lions' signs and nearly was tossed from the game by the home-plate umpire. While Stoll was being reprimanded by the ump, Hill was heard offering the umpire a suggestion from the dugout.
"Tell them to change their signs," Hill said repeatedly.
The incident proved to be a watermark moment for both men, as it clearly demonstrated that although the two coaches approached the game from different angles, the dynamic they had in the Free State dugout worked.
Through their eyes, it was their differences that allowed the relationship to flourish.
"We had a lot of fun," Stoll said. "We were such different peole, and that's why we worked so well together."
Through the eyes of those who coached with them, it was what each brought to the table, and not the ways they differed, that made them productive.
"With those two, you had the best of both worlds, and they were able to mesh their personalities because of their relationship off the field," said Ryan Goodwin, an assistant on the Free State staff in 2003 and current junior-college coach in Colorado. "You got the emotional side from Stoll and the technical side from Mike, and they're two of the best I've ever been around at both aspects."
Current LHS assistant Adam Green, who coached for four years with Stoll and Hill at Free State, said he sees a lot of Hill in Stoll, even though the two have stayed true to their own personalities.
"If you pay attention to Mike, you're going to become a better coach, and obviously Brad's done that," Green said. "Mike's a coach's coach, and Brad's a player's coach. You have to coach to your personality, and both guys do a great job of that."
Friday's game is not the first meeting between Hill and Stoll as adversaries. Twice a year for the past four seasons, the two have put their friendship aside and gone into battle with only winning on their minds. But it's hard. Every time.
"This isn't the city showdown," Hill said. "It's the state tournament. We had two city showdowns, and those are over. They don't give trophies for the city showdown. If we were to lose on Friday, the pain would be great because it always is when it's that last one. But at least a good friend of mine would be in the state semifinals."
Not surprisingly, Stoll sees it exactly the same way.
"We always say two nights a year all bets are off," Stoll said. "This year it just happens to be three nights. But this whole thing is about two teams of 18 kids, it's not about Mike and I. We're getting ready to kick their butts, and I'm sure he's getting them ready to kick ours."