It’s not easy now to determine when it happened — it’s rare that a group of teammates simultaneously has an epiphany — but sometime in early April, Free State High’s softball players began to realize they might be building something special this spring.
The Firebirds let a one-run lead get away from them in the bottom of the seventh inning April 2 at Olathe South, and they lost, 3-2. Since then, no one has stopped them. Close games, extra innings, blowouts — FSHS (12-1) has won them all in a nine-game stretch dating to its single loss.
Even better: Their setback at O-South was in the second game of a doubleheader. Only the first games count toward the Sunflower League standings, so Free State is 7-0 and tied for first with defending Class 6A state champion Olathe East (9-1 overall, 5-0 Sunflower League).
With seven regular-season games left to play in less than two weeks (including a home date with Olathe North this afternoon at FSHS, approximately 3:15 p.m.), Free State coach Lee Ice just doesn’t want his players to get comfortable. He’d rather they spend more time recalling how they lost almost four weeks ago.
“We’ve learned from that,” Ice said. “We’re finishing games a little better, and now it’s just one game at a time, like the old saying.”
Pitchers Meredith Morris (8-0) and Kaley Delg (4-1) have been just as key to the Firebirds’ success as the squad’s versatile lineup. Ice said this is the deepest team he has coached in his four years at FSHS.
Part of what makes Free State’s offense so strong is the heart of the order — and Ice includes everyone from the No. 3 hitter, on down to No. 7 in that group: Emily Byers, Whitney Rothwell, Courtney Parker, Morris and Remington Samuels.
“There’s not an easy out there,” Ice said.
Free State mixes the power in the middle of the lineup perfectly with speed at the top (A’Liyah Rogers and Emily Bermel) and bottom (Lily Ross and Kylie Cobb).
“I’ve got total confidence in every single one of those kids swinging the bat,” the coach said.
Rogers said the Firebirds trust one another.
“Everyone just gets along,” the senior shortstop said. “We all just got the hint that we can do this. If we all participate and have good attitudes and our heads in the game, we can win anything we want.”
Byers, Free State’s third baseman whose skill at the corner and understanding of the game contradict her status as a freshman, said the players don’t get down in tough situations. Wednesday at Shawnee Mission Northwest, the Firebirds had to win both of their games in eight innings and didn’t stress.
The trick will be maintaining this sublime level FSHS seems to have harnessed as it tries to win a league title and set itself up for a top regional seed.
“We just need to not get too cocky,” Byers said, “but be confident with what we’re doing and just keep working hard and have each other’s backs.”