Most likely, a Sunflower League championship won’t bring the Free State High baseball team a major sense of fulfillment. Nor will a perfect regular-season record or, for that matter, a lopsided victory over rival Lawrence High.
Win as many games as the Firebirds have over the years — enough to earn at least a share of six of the past seven Sunflower League championships, for instance — and the expectation level tends to get kicked up a notch in the process.
“Our program is at a level that there’s one goal, and that’s to win (a state title),” said Mike Hill, who’s entering his 13th season as Free State coach. “We want to win the Sunflower League, that’s been something we’ve put a lot of emphasis on. ... And we believe that if you can do that, you’re certainly among the elite teams in the state.”
The coach’s optimism, certainly, is not unwarranted.
While much of the local hype this preseason has centered on defending Class 6A champion Lawrence High, a team that features the area’s top player in pitcher Albert Minnis and begins the season ranked No. 33 in the Baseball America national high school poll, the Firebirds aren’t exactly a group of pushovers.
With the exception of one player, Free State returns all of its starters — including every member of a dominant pitching staff and all-state players Ryan Scott (pitcher) and Cody Kukuk (utility player) — from last year’s 17-5 team, which came within a run of qualifying for the state tournament.
Despite breaking in a number of inexperienced players last season, Free State tied for the Sunflower League crown and advanced to the finals of the regional tournament before falling 2-1 to the Lions, and with each of those players a year older and wiser, the thinking is that the Firebirds have as good a shot at this year’s state title as anybody.
“We definitely have high hopes,” Scott said. “Coming out of last season, we’re gunning for a state championship, for sure.”
On paper, there’s a lot to like about this year’s version of the Firebirds. The team’s roster features a corps of talented seniors with extensive varsity experience, a pitching staff that is six to seven players deep and eight-ninths of a defense that helped carry the program a season ago.
But as Hill was quick to point out last week, potential alone won’t win baseball games, and as the Firebirds enter a season of great expectations, relaying that reality to players has been a focal point for the coach.
“I think what’s important for the kids to understand is there is an opportunity to have success and to build upon what we were able to do a year ago, but it’s not a guaranteed thing,” Hill said. “It’s going to take some continued improvement and growth, particularly offensively, to have them be able to obtain their ultimate goals.”
Still, the pieces appear to be in place for Free State, and whether or not the Firebirds can make good on their preseason goal likely will depend upon their ability to shore up the small handful of issues that plagued them last spring.
For one thing, things tended to go Free State’s way quite a bit in ’09. The team was 6-3 in games decided by one run, for instance, and 9-3 in game decided by two runs or fewer, meaning a decent chunk of their victories came down to a timely hit here or a timely defensive stand there.
“The ball rolled our way a lot last year, which was nice,” Scott said. “But we can’t live on the edge like that. We’ve got to go out and go hard at it.”
In addition, Free State is coming off a particularly forgettable season offensively. The team’s .250 batting average last spring was the program’s worst — by .035 points — in Hill’s 12 seasons as coach of the Firebirds, and while pitching and defense were usually enough to overcome a lack of pop at the plate, the team has made a point this season of shoring up its offensive problems.
“If we get our offense to a level that our pitching and defense are expected to be at, then we’ll be formidable,” Hill said. “It just remains to be seen if we can get there or not.”
At the moment, though, the team’s attention is focused on the little things: tightening up all areas of its play, embracing the target that will likely be planted on its collective back for the duration of the season and readying itself for a quickly-approaching regular-season schedule that includes an upcoming trip to Oklahoma that figure to present a significant early-season challenge.
“It’s always exciting,” said senior first baseman Michael Lisher of the prospect of the postseason. “But that’s a long way away, like 25 games from now, if it happens. So we’re just taking it one game at a time right now.”