Topeka — If Lawrence High's baseball team suffers from a post-Armageddon letdown today, coach Brad Stoll will be surprised.
"These kids are hungry," Stoll said. "Even through our five-game losing streak, the state title has been our goal."
In other words, as much as Friday's stunning 4-3 victory over arch-rival Free State in the first-round of the Class 6A tournament meant to the Lions, they're hardly concerned about a sinking spell in today's semifinal.
"We're not worried about that," junior Dorian Green said. "We know it takes three games to win state."
The Lions will meet Blue Valley at 10 a.m. today at Hummer Park. If they win, they'll advance to the 5:30 p.m. title contest. If they lose, they'll play in the third-place game at 3 p.m.
Green, a who played center field Friday, will be on the mound in today's semifinal, and it's not an unfamiliar situation for the slender right-hander. He started the Lions' 6A semi against Blue Valley West last year in Wichita, yet lasted only three innings and was the losing pitcher in a 7-5 loss.
That outcome is one more reason Stoll expects the Lions to bring their A-game again today.
"Dorian lost that semifinal last year and it still eats at him," Stoll said. "No. I'm not worried about a letdown. Not at all."
If the 6A tourney seeding had gone according to form, Green wouldn't be pitching at all. He and the rest of the eighth-seeded Lions (12-10) would be turning in their uniforms today.
However, in a short series, seedings are often meaningless. Thus the top-seeded Firebirds (19-3) are the ones who will have to watch the remainder of the state meet as spectators.
Not that the Firebirds went without a whimper. For six innings, they managed only six singles and one run off Lions' starter Tom Schuh, but then they staged a stirring rally in the seventh.
After Schuh retired Tyler Hatesohl on a grounder, a wide throw to first by shortstop Aaron Rea enabled Nick Hassig to reach first base safely. Moments later, Adam Rock lined to right for what should have been the third out and a 4-1 Lawrence victory.
But then Jordan Dreiling slapped a single off third baseman Clint Pinnick's glove and Hunter Scheib enticed a walk off the tiring Schuh to load the bases.
Suddenly, with cleanup hitter John Wilson coming to the plate and with the tying runs on base, the tension was palpable. After taking a strike, Wilson delivered a line single to right and everybody went into motion.
Hassig scored from third and Dreiling raced around third. However, Dreiling spotted coach Mike Hill's stop sign, put on the brakes and headed back, not knowing Scheib had rounded second and was steamrolling into third.
Scheib was a dead duck, but to his credit he remained in a rundown long enough to enable Dreiling to score. Eventually, though, Pinnick applied the game-ending tag and the Lions' bench erupted.
"I've never been in a wilder inning than that," Pinnick said.
Pinnick added he sympathized with Scheib, as did Stoll.
"He's such an aggressive kid," Stoll said of the Firebirds' senior shortstop. "I'm sure he was thinking, 'Tie it up.' He's a tough kid and you can't fault him. He was just playing hard."
Lawrence grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first inning without hitting a ball out of the infield. Rea led off with an single on a grounder slowed by the high infield grass, Devin Forio walked and Chase Muder dunked a perfect bunt down the third base line to load the bases.
Minutes later, Free State starter Caleb Gress plunked Travis Sanders with a pitch to force in Rea. Two innings later, the Firebirds forged a tie when Scheib singled, stole second and scored on E.J. Swanson's single.
The scoreboard showed 1-1 until the sixth when back-to-back doubles by Jake Green and Tyler Bailey plated the go-ahead run. Next, Devin Forio singled in Bailey and Gress was removed in favor of Ryan Scott, who enticed Muder to pop to second to stop the bleeding.
An inning later, with the score still 3-1, Kornbrust touched Scott for a two-out double and Bailey singled him home with what proved to be the decisive run after the Firebirds' last-ditch comeback attempt fell one-run short.
Gress, who had retired all 20 batters he faced during last week's regional, fanned eight Lions during 5 2/3 innings on the hill, but surrendered seven hits, four walks and hit a batter to suffer his only defeat of the season.
The three meetings between the Firebirds and Lions this spring were decided by a mere four runs. Free State won the first two by scores of 6-4 and 4-3.
"The last two games were close like this one," Pinnick said. "When we got that first run in the first inning, I knew we were here to win. Everyone knew we could do it if we came to play."