One team was destined to charge the baseball field at Free State High, hoist the 6A regional championship trophy and celebrate a state tournament berth.
The Firebirds just hadn’t envisioned a scenario in which that team was any other than theirs.
But it wasn’t their night to celebrate.
Despite a 13-strikeout effort from Cody Kukuk, the Firebirds were knocked off, 5-3, in eight innings by an opportunistic Leavenworth team on a chilly night at FSHS.
After recording the final out, the Pioneers surged out of the dugout and piled on top of senior pitcher Ben Naething, who went pitch-for-pitch with Kukuk and mostly baffled the Firebirds all evening.
“We hit the ball hard at times. They didn’t fall. We had some things that didn’t go our way, some miscues here and there that bit us,” FSHS coach Mike Hill said. “In tight games like this, they were opportunistic, and unfortunately for us, we weren’t.”
Kukuk — who suffered his first loss of the season and only the second of his career — worked into the eighth inning with the score knotted at 3, but walked the leadoff hitter and was relieved by fellow senior Colin Toalson.
Toalson quickly retired the first two batters he faced, though the runner, J.T. Core, advanced to second on a wild pitch.
Judson Cole was next up and hit a weak chopper to third base that Dane McCullough had no play on, while Core took third.
After Cole stole second, Derrick Swaggerty grounded the first pitch he saw to shortstop, where Anthony Miele had come in for Toalson.
Miele fielded the ball cleanly and fired a low throw in the dirt to first, but usually sure-handed first baseman Montana Samuels was unable to make the scoop.
Core and Cole scored on the error and were greeted by a rowdy bunch of Pioneers, who took a 5-3 lead, stunning the FSHS side into silence.
The Firebirds brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the bottom half of the eighth, after Samuels led off with a single and McCullough was hit by a pitch. But the crafty Naething struck out Dylan Perry and pinch hitter Tim Turner, ending Free State’s season and triggering raucous cheers from the Leavenworth side.
The sixth-seeded Pioneers (13-9), who knocked off Wichita Heights, 6-2, earlier in the evening, jumped ahead 2-0 in the first after capitalizing on wildness by Kukuk.
Kukuk quickly retired the first two Leavenworth batters, but then walked two straight and tossed a wild pitch, setting the table for a two-RBI single by Michael Baillergeon.
Samuels rapped an RBI single in the bottom half to pull FSHS to 2-1, but the Pioneers scored again in the third after a dropped third strike and two wild pitches by Kukuk — who struck out four in the frame.
After that, Kukuk rounded into typically brilliant form on the mound, allowing only three base-runners the rest of the way.
“To his credit, he made (the adjustments) and battled,” Hill said. “He was dominant.”
He also helped his own cause in the third, crushing a 3-2 pitch from Naething over the right-field fence to score Preston Schenck and tie the game 3-3.
Though the Firebirds had a number of chances to pull ahead, they simply couldn’t solve Naething.
Though not overpowering — especially compared to Kukuk and his 90-plus mph fastball — Naething struck out nine and kept FSHS off balance with pinpoint accuracy on his curveball and off-speed pitches.
He got lucky a few times, though, when the Firebirds crushed a few balls directly at people. Most notably, Toalson cranked a shot that died on the warning track to end the sixth, and Schenck rocked a line drive directly to Eli Keppler in center leading off the eighth.
“The sixth and seventh were our opportunities to get things done, and we just didn’t,” Hill said. “You have to credit your opponent, because it’s not always what you do wrong. It’s what other people do right.”
FSHS (16-6) shut out Junction City, 4-0, earlier in the evening behind five shutout innings from J.D. Prochaska. Prochaska allowed only three singles and struck out five, while Toalson worked the final two innings to earn the save.
Samuels, McCullough, Tim Lewis and Joe Dineen each drove in runs for the Firebirds.
Kukuk, Toalson, Schenck, Perry, Lewis, Campbell Fritzel, Colin Phillips and Justin Walthall played their final game for FSHS.
“This is part of athletics,” Hill said. “It’s very painful. We’ve got quite a few seniors that played their last game, and this isn’t the way that any of them anticipated ending it.”