Walk-off home run sends Free State softball back to state to defend back-to-back titles
photo by: Chance Parker
The two-time defending state champion Free State softball team is headed back to the Class 6A state tournament thanks to a dramatic three-run walk-off homer in the seventh by senior shortstop Sara Roszak.
In the regional championship against Derby, the Firebirds were down to their final two outs of the season. But after the first two runners of the final inning reached base, Roszak lifted a towering fly ball that stayed just fair down the left field line to give Free State (19-1) the 6-5 comeback victory.
The blast, which secured the senior class its third consecutive regional title, set off a wild celebration. There were smiles, tears and hugs from the dugout to the bleachers, and Roszak had the water cooler dumped on her in the postgame euphoria.
“I had no idea it was going out,” a still-smiling Roszak said after the victory. “I cut it a little too close. I think with the almost heartbreak of that game, I think everybody’s hearts were kind of on edge.”
Added Free State senior Tatum Clopton, who was on deck when Roszak ended the game: “That was the most strange, slow-motion home run I’ve ever seen. It was like everything just froze for a moment. I couldn’t have asked for a better ending.”
photo by: Chance Parker
The Firebirds led most of the way on Friday, but quickly realized that their season could soon be over when Derby (16-6) scored three runs in the top of the sixth inning to take a 5-3 lead.
For a team used to keeping opponents to two runs or fewer for the better part of the past three seasons, that reality was jarring. But they never let it get to them.
After Free State was retired three-up, three-down in the bottom of the sixth, Clopton, FSHS’ ace pitcher, sat the Panthers down in the same fashion in the top of the seventh. That set the stage for the dramatic finish.
Senior third baseman Robin Todd, whose defensive gem in the top of the inning helped keep Free State in it, led off the bottom of the seventh with a first-pitch ripped single to right field.
“As soon as I got on, I felt like we were doing this,” Todd said after noting that her play in the field gave her confidence heading to the plate.
“I told them to stay positive — I told them we’re going to win this game — but it’s all them,” FSHS acting head coach Charley Bowen said. “They just won’t give up. I’m just so proud of them. That’s all I can say.”
Senior Georgia Rea followed Todd’s single with a four-pitch walk, and two batters later Roszak clobbered her 12th home run of the season to cap off the comeback.
Asked about the final at-bat, which featured a rocket that went foul just one pitch before the homer, Roszak said her only goal was to find a way to get the two Free State base runners home.
“You always run through all the situations, and you’re like, ‘OK, well that’s an option, but I can’t focus on it,'” she said of a potential game-winning home run. “I just went up there knowing I needed a line drive or a base hit. I knew I had runners on base and I needed to get them in.”
Her big swing did exactly that, and Rea’s 7-year-old brother, Gehrig, tracked down the home run ball, which made its way home with the Roszak family after Friday’s win.
photo by: Matt Tait
That keepsake added to what was already an emotional evening.
“It’s a big deal. It means a lot,” Roszak said of helping send her team back to state. “It means I get more time with my seniors, and it means I get more time on this field in this jersey. That means a lot to me because it’s been a very special run. I feel so grateful to be part of this team, and any time I’m on this field with my teammates, I feel lucky.”
The Firebirds advanced to Friday’s regional final with a 17-0, three-inning win over Wichita Heights earlier in the day. In that one, Clopton pitched a perfect first inning, retiring three batters on just nine pitches, and teamed up with her younger sister Kinsey to record the one-hit win.
Kinsey Clopton, a freshman, struck out six in Game 1, and Tatum Clopton fanned 12 batters in the title game to improve to 16-1 on the season.
All nine Free State batters who came to the plate in the first inning scored, and the Firebirds plated 13 runs in the first and four more in the second to cruise to the easy, run-rule victory.
Roszak (2), Tatum Clopton (2), Kinsey Clopton (2), Rea (2), Kay Lee Richardson (2), Todd (1) and Leah Mueller (1) all had RBIs in the opener.
Tatum Clopton and Rea both homered in Game 1, and Tatum Clopton homered again in the title game to give Free State a 2-1 lead in the fourth inning.
Friday’s games were the first for the Firebirds since head coach Lee Ice was placed on administrative leave following a dugout incident during a recent game. Bowen, a longtime assistant who was put in charge of the program for the rest of the 2021 season, praised his girls for how they handled the adversity.
“I felt like they were relaxed,” Bowen said. “I just told them we’re going to have fun, we’re going to relax and we’re going to play ball, and that’s what they did.”
Added Roszak: “When we get on the field, we have a plan and we know what we’re going to do. That shook us up a little bit, but Chabo (Bowen) told us in one of our practices that we were not going to let this get to us. It’s in the past; we’re not going to talk about it. We’re going to go play and get to state like we know we can.”
Wichita Heights 0 0 0 — 0 1 5
Free State 13 4 X — 17 12 0
Derby 010 013 0 — 5 3 0
Free State 010 200 3 — 6 6 3
photo by: Chance Parker