The softball players at Free State High know a state championship-caliber team when they see one. The Firebirds went head-to-head with the past two Class 6A title winners, Sunflower League adversaries Olathe East (2012) and Olathe Northwest (2011).
“They always have that ability and charisma,” FSHS junior first baseman Whitney Rothwell said of the elite teams. “They have good pitching, they have good fielding, they have good, timely hitting, they have speed. I feel like we have all of that this year.”
Beginning at 5 p.m. today — with a first-round state tournament game against Derby (13-5) at Blue Valley West, in Overland Park — Free State (19-3) will try to earn the league’s third straight 6A crown.
Firebirds coach Lee Ice, now in his fourth year leading the program that last advanced to state in 2007, hasn’t necessarily tried to copy the blueprint of past state champs, but getting to this level has been a process. As Rothwell alluded to, the Firebirds seem to have ingredients that could help them win three games in two days — which would give FSHS its first state softball title — even if that means going through Olathe East (21-1) and Topeka Washburn Rural (22-0) in the semifinals and finals Friday.
“It’s not always the best team that wins,” Ice said, “but the team that plays the best.”
Free State’s veteran senior leaders, catcher Courtney Parker and shortstop A’Liyah Rogers, said those outside of the FSHS program might hold No. 1 seed Rural and No. 2 O-East in higher regard, but teams have learned to respect No. 3 Free State this season. And even though state will be an unfamiliar experience for the Firebirds, Rogers said they remain a loose, confident group.
“Everybody just gets pumped about it,” the leadoff hitter said, “because we’ve never been here before.”
Added Parker: “We don’t have anything to lose in this tournament at all. We get to be the relaxed team.”
Ice has only seen the Firebirds dugout on edge once this season, and that was during a 7-1 road loss to O-East, which essentially decided the league championship. He doesn’t anticipate similar nerves for the group at state, and credited seniors Parker, Rogers and twin reserves Ariana and Summer Frantz with cultivating an easy-going environment. If the Firebirds’ opponents are anxious, Ice expects his team to have a competitive edge.
“You get to this level, where there’s only eight teams left, there’s gonna be good pitching,” Ice said. “But one untimely mistake could lead to that big crooked number.”
Parker and Rogers agreed talent is only one factor in the Firebirds’ success this season. Perhaps more important has been the way the players on the field — Parker, Rogers, Rothwell, pitcher Meredith Morris, second baseman Lily Ross, third baseman Emily Byers, left fielder Remington Samuels, center fielder Emily Bermel and right fielder Kylie Cobb — react to challenging in-game scenarios. Worry-free, they’ve finished the majority of their games confidently and effectively.
Even if that’s the only thing the Firebirds have in common with past state champions, Parker said it will be fine with them.
“I feel like we’re pretty original,” Parker said. “I think this team’s just different than everybody else.”