Overland Park The tears flowed, the hugs seemed never-ending, and the pain of bowing out of the Class 6A state softball tournament before they could even get comfortable was just beginning.
The only thing that came close to alleviating the pain felt by Free State High’s softball players after Thursday’s crushing 3-2, eight-inning loss to Derby at Blue Valley West High was the immediate talk about making it back to the state tournament again a year from now.
“This is just the fuel in our fire for next year,” said sophomore center fielder Emily Bermel, the Sunflower League’s newcomer of the year, who, even as a move-in and an underclassman, showed she’s ready for the leadership role she’ll surely inherit next season. “Now that we’ve built the program back up, it has become an expectation for us to get to state.”
Credit Bermel and her teary-eyed teammates for understanding that point during such a painful time. Credit Free State coach Lee Ice for making such a concept second-nature for a group whose talent is surpassed only by its work ethic.
Thursday’s silver-lining chatter did not do much to stop the sobbing of senior catcher Courtney Parker and senior shortstop A’Liyah Rogers, the only two Free State starters who won’t be back in 2014, but anybody betting against the Firebirds taking another crack at the state tournament 12 months from now would do better to put their money toward a sweet deal on the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Firebirds, who finished 19-4 and delivered enough memorable moments to fill three or four scrapbooks, will return their entire outfield (Bermel, Kylie Cobb and Remington Samuels), all but one infielder (Emily Byers, Lily Ross and Whitney Rothwell), their top two pitchers (Meredith Morris and Kaley Delg) and will take the field for opening day next season with a burning desire to be better than they were during the best season in program history. Sound daunting? Not if you ask them.
“We may get a break from it this summer,” Bermel admitted. “But once conditioning starts in the fall, we’ll remember how this felt right away, and it’ll be time to get to work again.”
There’s no doubt Ice and the rest of the crew in the Free State dugout Thursday would have loved nothing more than to return to the same field today with a state championship just two wins away. But since they came up short, words like the ones that came from Bermel’s mouth served as the next best thing.
“We’ve got the pieces to make another run,” said Ice, noting that the Free State junior varsity team finished 16-2. “But if they’ve never experienced this part of it, then they don’t truly know what it takes. They’ve experienced it now. And they’ll learn from it. Now, it’s how badly do they want to come back?”