Like most baseball teams, Free State High and Lawrence High would love to be peaking just in time for the playoffs.
With both the Firebirds and Lions hitting skids lately, tonight’s city showdown — 5:15 p.m. at LHS — as well as Thursday’s regular-season-finale rematch at FSHS, could go a long way in determining how far both teams go once the postseason begins next week.
Adding to the intrigue, particularly for the less-heralded Firebirds (8-10), is the possibility the rivals could face each other a third time in a Class 6A regional.
Free State junior catcher Lee McMahon said this week could provide his team with insight on the Lions (10-8).
“These two games are huge,” McMahon said, “from a scouting perspective and from a bragging-rights perspective.”
Free State coach Mike Hill played down the importance of the rivalry, but said the atmosphere the city showdown provides should help his young team, which has dropped four of its last five games, as it prepares for the regional tournament.
“It’s an even bigger game for people in the community, because it gives them something to talk about, but in all candor it’s one of 20 (games on the schedule),” Hill said. “We’re looking at it as an opportunity for us to get better.”
The same could be said for coach Brad Stoll’s Lions, losers in three of their past four games. Those setbacks took LHS out of the running for hosting a regional, which flustered Stoll. But with Lawrence celebrating seniors Trevor Champagne, Troy Willoughby, Cameron Solko, CJ Roush, Garrett Cleavinger, Matt Sutliffe, Jake Vinoverski, Landon Hay and Devin Garcia tonight, the coach knows his team will be pumped and ready to go. Regional implications just sweeten the pot.
“It just makes it even more exciting,” Stoll said. “It just adds to the drama.”
For the Lions, Sutliffe said going 1-3 in their last four should fuel the fire against FSHS, because Lawrence has aspired for a state championship all season.
“It’s not about the Free State games,” the senior first baseman said, “it’s about the last two weeks in May.”
Willoughby, a senior shortstop, saw the scrappy Firebirds play at the River City Baseball Festival in April. He said LHS won’t be guaranteed anything.
“Their team doesn’t give up. I think that’s their biggest strength,” Willoughby said. “They just don’t really care. They’re gonna do what they can to win.”
Cleavinger is slated to start on the mound in his home finale. Hill called the lefty “the headline player in our community right now,” and FSHS senior second baseman Tim Turner said the Firebirds’ pitchers will have to match the Lions’ ace.
“We’ve got to stick to our strengths — pitching and defense — and try to squeeze out a run here or there,” Turner said.
Ryan Cantrell is scheduled to start for FSHS.