Olathe — For nearly five innings Tuesday night, it looked as if one unearned run Olathe North scored in the fourth inning off of a couple of Free State High miscues might be enough to determine the outcome.
But two innings, five runs and countless clutch hits later, the Firebirds had clinched their eighth Sunflower League title with a 5-3 victory over the Eagles.
“I’ve always said that I think the most difficult thing to do year in and year out is to win the Sunflower League championship,” Free State High coach Mike Hill said. “At regionals, you have to get hot for one day. At state, you have to get hot for two days. But to win this thing, you’ve gotta be on for 11 games because there are no easy ones in this league.”
That last part certainly held true Tuesday, when FSHS moved to 15-1 overall and 10-0 in league play with just one league game remaining. For the first few innings, Free State’s bats were quiet and its defense a step slow, which allowed O-North to take a 1-0 lead thanks to a passed ball and a throwing error by Free State catcher Lee McMahon.
However, just a half-inning after falling behind on the scoreboard, it seemed evident that the defensive miscues may have been what woke up the Free State offense.
One day after blasting two home runs in a home victory, junior Joe Dineen tied the game with an RBI single that barely had enough on it to get through the left side of the infield. The hit brought home Cameron Pope, who had walked to lead off the inning. In the top of the sixth, the Firebirds added three more runs thanks to three straight hits from Sam Hearnen, Pope and Anthony Miele and a clutch two-RBI single from sophomore Joel Spain.
“With runners in scoring position, you’ve gotta put the ball in play somehow,” Spain said. “That was the most important thing.”
Spain did just that, lacing a shot past the glove of Olathe North’s third baseman to push the Firebirds’ lead to 4-1.
North answered with two runs in the sixth to keep things tight until the end, but Free State added an insurance run off the bat of McMahon in the top of the seventh. His towering fly ball that fell just behind second base drove in Cooper Karlin and gave the Firebirds a 5-3 lead.
That was enough for Hearnen, who went 6.1 innings, and twice struck out the side in just his third start of the season. After striking out the first batter in the seventh, Hearnen walked the next batter, which brought the tying run to the plate. That prompted Hill to turn to Jacob Caldwell to slam the door, and Caldwell struck out the first batter he faced before serving up a ground ball to Miele for the final out of the game.
Hearnen, a senior, said picking up the win on the mound in a league-title clinching victory was a career highlight.
“We definitely didn’t want to share the league title,” said Hearnen, who also doubled twice, one of which led to a run by pinch-runner Tristan Garber. “It’s so sweet. I’ve always wanted a league title and it just felt really nice to be out there and get it done.”
Free State’s season is not finished and Hill and the Firebirds hope there is more hardware in their future. They get just a brief moment to enjoy Tuesday’s accomplishment and will return to the diamond for a double-header today against Pembroke Hill and Blue Valley North at FSHS.
“I told them to be proud,” Hill said. “But we don’t have time to stop and smell the roses right now. We need to get right back to work. But I was really proud of the kids tonight, particularly what they did in the seventh inning. They were resilient and they competed.”
Free State 000 013 1 — 5 8 1
O-North 000 102 0 — 3 7 1
W - Sam Hearnen L - Slaughter
FSHS highlights: Hearnen 6.1 IP 3 ER 8 K 1 BB, 2-for-4, 2 2Bs; Joe Dineen 1-for-4, RBI; Cooper Karlin run; Lee McMahon 1-for-3, RBI; Cameron Pope 1-for-3, 2 runs, RBI; Anthony Miele 1-for-3, run, SB; Joel Spain 2-for-3, 2 RBIs.