FSHS, LHS ready for important week during return of River City Baseball Festival

Lawrence High starting pitcher Grant Cleavinger delivers to a Shawnee Mission Northwest batter during the first inning on Thursday, April 15, 2021 at Lawrence High School.

The River City Baseball Festival will make its much-awaited return on Thursday after not having the event in 2020 due to COVID-19.

This year’s event will last three days between Thursday through Saturday, and will feature 38 teams after a few late cancellations. That means it will have just two fewer teams than the most squads to ever compete in the event, which happened in 2019 during the 18th annual River City Baseball Festival.

“We are really thankful to be able to play,” said Free State head coach Mike Hill, who has been in charge of this event during all 19 years of its existence. “This has become, through the hard work of a lot of people, the premier high school baseball even in the Midwest.”

Plenty of preparation goes into the scheduling of this event, including making sure it takes place when the Kansas baseball team is away in order to host games at Hoglund Ballpark. Free State and Lawrence are the other two venues for this annual event.

Games will begin at 9 a.m. Thursday at both LHS and FSHS, while the first contest at Hoglund Ballpark is slated to start at 3:45 p.m. Roughly six games will be played at each ballpark on all three days, featuring teams from Kansas, Missouri and other nearby states such as Oklahoma and Arkansas.

“This is like Coach Hill’s baby,” LHS head coach Brad Stoll said. “When I was an assistant with him in 1998, it started off with four teams and it has grown into the premier event in the Midwest.”

“He’s created quite a big-time event,” Stoll added.

photo by: Chance Parker

Free State pitcher Michael Uhler pitches against Shawnee Mission North. Free State won 9-4 Thursday, April 1, 2021.

Both Free State (5-7) and Lawrence (6-6, No. 10 in Class 6A) will compete in three games in as many days, including two contests in Hoglund Ballpark, this week.

LHS will have the late game (8:15 p.m. first pitch) on the first two days, facing Belton (Mo.) in Hoglund Ballpark on Thursday and hosting Lee’s Summit West (Mo.) on Friday. The Lions will end the week by squaring off with Blue Valley North at 6 p.m. Saturday at KU.

Blue Valley North is actually coached by Mike Dudley, who spent five years as a pitching coach at Lawrence High. The Mustangs enter this week’s event ranked No. 7 in Class 6A.

“We feel like we might be looking in the mirror because we’ll probably do a lot of the same similar things,” Stoll said of Blue Valley North. “They are going to be extremely well coached and he’s a young guy with great energy, so they will come out ready to fight.”

Free State, meanwhile, will face Topeka Hayden at 6 p.m. Thursday at Hoglund Ballpark for the first game. FSHS will host Belton (Mo.) at 3:45 p.m. Friday before wrapping up the week with a matchup against Raymore-Peculiar (Mo.) at 11:15 a.m. Saturday at KU.

Raymore-Peculiar will trot out a trio of pitchers committed to Division I programs, including LSU commit Kaiden Wilson.

“Our focus is on us,” Hill said. “We want to play a game as clean as we possibly can. That’s the improvement that we need to see in order for us to be a viable team in May.”

Most of all, this week figures be a good chance for both teams to learn more about themselves since they will just be playing in games.

In 2019, LHS won all three games in this event and came through with a walk-off victory against Blue Valley North on the final day of the River City Baseball Festival. It was really the start of an impressive run by the Lions, who eventually ended one game short of making it to the state tourney.

And Stoll believes this year’s squad is on the verge of a similar stretch.

“It’s really fun to try to find your identity as your team when you face three opponents back-to-back-to-back nights,” Stoll said. “It’s exciting. I can’t wait to get out there.”

Free State also won all three games in the 2019 version of this event, which was the closing stretch of a 14-game win streak. FSHS eventually made it all the way to the Class 6A state championship game that year before finishing as runner-up.

While this year’s team is still piecing it all together, the hope for the Firebirds is that this week helps prepare them for where they want to end up.

“It helps better identify areas where you need to improve, and frankly can reaffirm positives,” Hill said. “Three games in a couple days very much resembles the state tournament, which is still our goal to get to.”

2021 River City Baseball Festival

Thursday at Hoglund Ballpark: Blue Springs vs. SM West, 3:45 p.m.; Topeka Hayden vs. Free State, 6 p.m.; Belton vs. Lawrence, 8:15 p.m.

Thursday at FSHS: Liberty North. vs. Mill Valley, 9 a.m.; Blue Springs vs. Olathe North, 11:15 a.m.; Liberty vs. Blue Valley, 1:30 p.m.; Blue Springs South vs. Bishop Kelley, 3:45 p.m.; Lee’s Summit West vs. Olathe West, 6 p.m.; Lee’s Summit vs. Blue Valley North, 8:15 p.m.

Thursday at LHS: KC Rockhurst vs. Olathe East, 9 a.m.; KC Rockhurst vs. SM Northwest, 11:15 a.m.; Lee’s Summit West vs. Topeka Hayden, 1:30 p.m.; Belton vs. Olathe South, 3:45 p.m.; Liberty vs. Blue Valley West, 6 p.m.; Raymore-Peculiar vs. Olathe Northwest, 8:15 p.m.

Friday at Hoglund Ballpark: KC Rockhurst vs. Olathe South, 9 a.m.; Bishop Kelley vs. Olathe North, 11:15 a.m.; Liberty North vs. Olathe Northwest, 1:30 p.m.; Lee’s Summit vs. Mill Valley, 3:45 p.m.; Maize vs. SM Northwest, 6 p.m.; Rogers vs. Blue Valley, 8:15 p.m.

Friday at FSHS: Blue Springs vs. Leavenworth, 9 a.m.; Raymore-Peculiar vs. Maize, 11:15 a.m.; Blue Springs South vs. SM East, 1:30 p.m.; Belton vs. Free State, 3:45 p.m.; Liberty North vs. Blue Valley West, 6 p.m.; Liberty vs. Blue Valley Southwest, 8:15 p.m.

Friday at LHS: Shawnee Heights vs. SM South, 9 a.m.; Carthage vs. SM West, 11:15 a.m.; Blue Springs vs. SM Northwest, 1:30 p.m.; Rogers vs. Olathe West, 3:45 p.m.; Blue Springs South vs. Olathe Northwest, 6 p.m.; Lee’s Summit West vs. Lawrence, 8:15 p.m.

Saturday at Hoglund Ballpark: Shawnee Heights vs. SM East, 9 a.m.; Raymore-Peculiar vs. Free State, 11:15 a.m.; St. James vs. Olathe East, 1:30 p.m.; Washburn Rural vs. Olathe West, 3:45 p.m.; Blue Valley North vs. Lawrence, 6 p.m.

Saturday at FSHS: Lee’s Summit vs. Leavenworth, 9 a.m.; Lee’s Summit vs. Washburn Rural, 11:15 a.m.; Lansing vs. McPherson, 1:30 p.m.; Raymore-Peculiar vs. McPherson, 3:45 p.m.; Derby vs. SM South, 6 p.m.; Liberty vs. Derby, 8:15 p.m.

Saturday at LHS: Blue Springs South vs. Blue Valley Northwest, 11:15 a.m.; Blue Valley Northwest vs. Arkansas City, 1:30 p.m.; St. James vs. Arkansas City, 3:45 p.m.; Belton vs. SM West, 6 p.m.


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