Coaches like to talk about the importance of using the regular season to set their teams up for the best possible postseason scenario.
No baseball team took advantage of that formula better than Free State High (17-3), which plays host to a four-team Class 6A regional today. The top-seeded Firebirds take on No. 8 seed Kansas City, Kan., Wyandotte (0-9) at 4 p.m.
Though his Firebirds could play two home games today — a victory over Wyandotte places them in a 6 p.m. regional final against Olathe Northwest (12-8) or Topeka Washburn Rural (11-9) — coach Mike Hill said their 12-1 home mark this season guarantees them nothing.
“It certainly can help,” the 16-year coach said of playing on the FSHS home turf, “but we’ve hosted before and not advanced, so it’s certainly not the cure-all.”
For Hill, the best part of being the home team is having the last at-bat, because he expects tight, one-run contests in the postseason. If it comes down to a decisive seventh inning, Joel Spain, Cooper Karlin, Jacob Caldwell, Lee McMahon, Sam Hearnen, Cameron Pope, Anthony Miele, Zach Bickling and Joe Dineen all know their team can deliver. Free State has even won three extra-inning games at home this season.
“We’ve certainly had some good fortune in that regard,” Hill said. “Hopefully that will pay dividends for us.”
If the Firebirds are able to win two today and move on to their first state tournament since 2010, Hill said they will have to produce runs in clutch situations.
“If you take an objective look at our team, when we’ve lost ballgames it’s been a lack of timely hitting,” he said.
Free State lost, 3-0, to Blue Valley Northwest, 2-1, against Blue Valley North and 2-1, in 10 innings, in its regular-season finale against Lawrence.
“We had opportunities,” Hill said, “in all of those games with guys on base.”
Junior pitcher Ryan Cantrell (2-1) will start against Wyandotte.
Lawrence heads to Manhattan
As Lawrence High’s baseball team heads to Manhattan for its regional playoffs today — the No. 3 seed Lions (13-7) face No. 6 Junction City (6-14) at 2 p.m., at Eisenhower Middle School — coach Brad Stoll isn’t worried about his group’s unfamiliarity with the rest of the field.
Sure, LHS hasn’t played JCHS or No. 2 Manhattan (14-5) or No. 7 Topeka (5-15) this season. But the Lions have something else going for them. Stoll likes to call it Lawrence’s high school baseball RPI.
“We feel like we’ve got a pretty good one, even though it doesn’t exist,” Stoll said, referring to his team’s success against a challenging schedule.
Taking on the likes of Kansas City Mo., Rockhurst or an Omaha, Neb., Creighton Prep, the coach said, is just part of his battle-tested philosophy.
“We play in the best conference in the state of Kansas,” Stoll added. “There’s some teams at the bottom of the conference that aren’t as strong, but year in, year out in the Sunflower League, there’s seven, eight teams that are solid baseball teams, and that’s the chunk of your schedule.”
LHS even split its two games against rival Free State, whom Stoll considers the top team in 6A. The coach wants the Lions playing those types of competitive games so they will be ready for the last five games in May — two at regionals and three at the state tournament.
With a win against Junction City, the Lions would play either Manhattan or Topeka in a 6 p.m. regional championship game. Stoll is glad to have pitchers Brandon Bell (6-2), Adam Rea (3-2), CJ Stuever (2-1, who will start versus JCHS) and Shane Willoughby (2-0) at his disposal.
“We feel like, between those four guys, we can win two games in one day,” the coach said. “We would take those four against anybody.”
As well as the pitching and defense has performed, Stoll would like to see more out of his offensive lineup — Stuever, Kieran Severa, Willoughby, Drew Green, Michael Sinks, Jacob Seratte, Rea, Parker Kirkpatrick and Easton Barnes — to make things easier.
A regional title today would give LHS its third straight state-tournament berth.