To make a run in the state tournament, any prep baseball coach will tell you, there are some things that typically come in handy: timely hitting, flawless fielding, a breakout performance or two.
An abundance of good pitching never hurts, either.
“Oftentimes at the high school level, quality pitching is rare,” said Free State coach Mike Hill, whose fourth-seeded Firebirds will open play against fifth-seeded Wichita Northwest at 6:30 p.m. Friday in the opening round of the Class 6A state tournament. “Teams sometimes have one or two (pitchers), but to have three or four, you’re in pretty good position.”
This is the luxury with which the Firebirds enter the weekend: At a point in the season when quality pitching is at a premium, Free State features no shortage of talented arms.
Six of the team’s pitchers —Cody Kukuk, Colin Toalson, JD Prochaska, Rob Wagner, Ryan Scott and Hayden Emerson — have made significant contributions so far this season, and while junior ace Kukuk has garnered the majority of the attention —understandably, given his team-leading 8-0 record, 1.01 earned-run average and 76 strikeouts —nearly all of the aforementioned players appear capable of holding their own against the state’s elite.
As Toalson put it, “We’re just kind of stacked this year, if you ask me.”
A good chunk of the success, in fact, can be attributed to Toalson, who has emerged this season as one of the area’s top pitchers and helped replace the production of Scott, who has been hampered at times by arm soreness following an all-state season in ’09.
In 16 appearances, Toalson has gone 7-1 with five saves and a 1.39 earned-run average, while significantly bolstering the Firebirds’ bullpen.
“A lot of clubs at this level aren’t equipped to go to the bullpen,” Hill said. “And with Colin, you don’t really lose anything. In fact, in some cases, you could make the argument that you get better.”
Added Wagner, who has gone 1-1 with a 3.32 ERA in 122⁄3 innings, “We can go to the bullpen pretty much any time without much of a drop-off.”
All of which means that, assuming the Firebirds can advance past their first-round opponent, the biggest challenge facing the Free State coaching staff might very well be determining how best to utilize its various options throughout the remainder of the weekend.
Kukuk likely will start the team’s first-round game against Wichita Northwest, Hill said earlier this week, and if the Firebirds are able to advance to Saturday’s semifinal round, coaches won’t want for options.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in all our pitchers,” Emerson said. “If somebody’s struggling, we’ve got somebody there to step in and help out right away.”
Of course, as the Firebirds learned the hard way last season, pitching alone won’t necessarily be enough to march through what figures to be a loaded tournament field.
The team’s pitching staff was undeniably deep a year ago, but offensive struggles hampered Free State down the stretch as the team failed to advance to the state tournament for just the second time in seven seasons.
At the same time, a stable of capable pitchers that can withstand the pressures of three games against the best lineups the state has to offer is an invaluable commodity, which is why Hill and his staff are able to enter this weekend’s tournament with a good level of comfort.
Said Hill of the team’s pitching depth, “It sure makes you sleep a little better.”