It has been more than three weeks since Lawrence High’s Willoughby brothers, Troy and Shane, were on the baseball diamond at the same time during a live game. They’re hoping that won’t go down as the last time they’re out there together this season.
As the Lions (13-9) prepare for their fourth trip to the state tournament in five years — No. 6 seed LHS opens at 6:30 tonight against No. 3 Shawnee Mission West (17-5) at Kansas University’s Hoglund Ballpark — the Willoughbys are doing everything they can to get Shane back on the field.
Sent to the bench due to a broken left thumb during LHS’s loss to Shawnee Mission Northwest on May 4, Shane, a sophomore, has been a spectator ever since. He remembers well the moment the injury occurred. The tears that ran down his face that day weren’t from the physical pain.
“I heard it pop, and I just didn’t want to look at it because I didn’t want to see a break or anything,” Shane said before practice on Tuesday. “Then I tried to swing a bat, and I couldn’t. That made me realize it could be awhile.”
His absence from the lineup card has not taken him out of the game. Just like his teammates, Shane has traveled to every game and been in the dugout for every big pitch or clutch at-bat. Last week in Manhattan, where the Lions qualified for state by winning their regional, the injured third baseman even got in on the celebratory dogpile. He doesn’t remember where he kept his hand during the fun, or, as he put it, “I didn’t really care at that point. Being in Manhattan, it was still exhilarating for me, just to watch us win. I got all excited just like everybody in the dugout, and I still felt a part of it.”
That’s because he has been. And the Lions are hoping he will be again before the season’s over. With any luck, the hard cast that protects Shane’s left hand will be removed this morning and replaced with a soft cast, which would allow more flexibility. That, doctors tell him, would make pinch-running in the state tournament a possibility.
“It makes me want to listen to what the doctor says so I can be ready to do that,” Shane said. “I’ve thought about taking this thing off. Sometimes, when it gets wet, it just slides down. But I’ve just done whatever he says so I can get back as soon as I can.”
Added LHS coach Brad Stoll: “It’s worth keeping him on the roster just in case he can do that. He’s so freakin’ athletic and such a good base-runner. He does a lot of things that most kids can’t do.”
The fact that it’s even possible for Shane to get back onto the field has helped Troy, a junior, deal with seeing his younger brother miss time.
“It’s definitely a big blow for us,” said Troy, who has filled in for Shane at third base. “He’s a good player, and him not being out there is a big loss for us. It’s been a lot different. I definitely hurt for him a little bit, but I know that I’m going to have other opportunities to play with him. It’s not the end of the world.”
Asked if the idea of Shane’s return made for a perfect ending to the 2011 season, Troy grinned and said, “Almost. But we’ve still got work to do.”
The last time the Lions and Vikings met with so much on the line was in 2009, when the two Sunflower League squads met in the state title game, which LHS won, 3-2. A handful of LHS’s key contributors this year were there that day — some in the dugout and others in the stands — which Stoll was thrilled about because it fit right into his motivational tools for Round 1. The message? SM West wants revenge, Stoll says, and, because of that, the Vikings are going to bring more intensity to the field than any team the Lions have faced all season.
The veteran LHS coach is confident that will be enough to keep his team sharp and focused on the biggest game of its season. Good thing, too, because, back in league play, the Lions topped SM West, 9-2, en route to winning the Sunflower League title. Today, that game means nothing, and Stoll said he made sure to hammer that home to his guys.
“They didn’t throw their guy, and we didn’t throw ours,” said Stoll of the starting pitching match-up from the first meeting. “So you never know what can happen. But I know our guys will be focused and ready to go.”
Senior Alex Laughlin (4-3, 2.11 ERA, 60 strikeouts, 20 walks) will start on the mound tonight for LHS. Should the Lions advance, they’d play at 12:30 p.m. Saturday against the winner of the 2-7 match-up between Haysville-Campus (18-4) and Blue Valley West (13-9). A win there would put the Lions back in the state title game at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. A loss would drop them to the third-place game at 3 p.m.