River City Festival times Thursday:
• Lawrence High: 5 p.m. vs. K.C. Bishop Ward
• Free State: 7:30 p.m. vs. Rockhurst (Mo.)
Location: Both at Kansas University’s Hoglund Ballpark
You’d be hard-pressed to find a baseball fan in Lawrence who isn’t excited about this weekend’s River City Baseball Festival.
The 10th annual Festival — which features 28 teams playing 35 games in three days — begins today and runs through Saturday at Free State High, Lawrence High and Kansas University’s Hoglund Ballpark.
“It’s developed into, without question, one of the premier baseball tournaments in this part of the country,” FSHS coach Mike Hill said.
LHS and FSHS begin play this evening at Hoglund. The Lions will take on perennial 4A power Kansas City Bishop Ward at 5 p.m., and the Firebirds will follow with a clash against Kansas City (Mo.) Rockhurst at 7:30 p.m.
“It’s one of my favorite times of the year,” LHS coach Brad Stoll said.
Stoll said he had his team treat the Festival like it’s the state tournament. And it’s a fitting comparison, considering it eventually will take three straight victories within a few days to become state champs.
Not to mention, the state tournament will also be played at Hoglund, and Stoll said playing in a Div. I venue always gets his team fired up.
“We’re challenging ourselves every day,” Stoll said. “Every game, every tournament, it’s the best teams we can find. That’s what’s so exciting about this weekend.”
Alex Laughlin, Garrett Cleavinger and Jake Johnson will mostly handle the starting pitching duties for the Lions (4-4), but Stoll also expects middle relievers Cameron Sulko and Bryce Montes de Oca to see plenty of time.
Ross Johnson, Lawrence’s leadoff hitter, has done a great job of setting the table for Troy Willoughby and Matt Sutliffe, who Stoll said have been stinging the ball lately and driving in a lot of runs.
Hill said he prepared the Firebirds (6-1) in a similar manner for the Festival, noting that while his team has quite a way to go in order to get back to state, he hopes it will be playing in three similar games to end the year.
“We’ve been able to struggle, if you will, and still go 6-1,” Hill said.
Left-hander Cody Kukuk (4-0), who dazzled with a complete-game shutout and hit three home runs in the Festival last year, Colin Toalson and Tim Lewis are expected to pace the Firebirds.