Despite early setbacks, FSHS baseball kept state streak alive during 2021 campaign
photo by: Chance Parker
Players might come and go through the Free State baseball program, but every season seems to end the same way with the Firebirds competing in the Class 6A state tournament.
Despite only returning two players with varsity experience, FSHS lived up to those lofty expectations in 2021. The Firebirds (13-10) advanced to the state tourney before suffering a 9-1 loss to eventual champion Blue Valley High School in the quarterfinals.
“We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of success in our program over the years,” FSHS head coach Mike Hill said. “These kids, despite the challenges that the pandemic and other things provided them, they embodied all of those standards and expectations and got good results at the end because of that.”
FSHS has now notched three consecutive state berths and made it to the final event of the year in five of the past six seasons. Over that span, the Firebirds have reached the state title game three times and won one of them.
There is no need for the coaching staff to tell the players about any of this, however. It is understood that the expectation for every FSHS squad is to be one of the final eight teams remaining by the end of the year.
“The reason we don’t talk about it a lot is because it’s embedded,” Hill said. “While we address it, I think that it’s kind of something that stands on its own. And they understand the minute they get here that there are expectations, and they want to keep those expectations high.”
Given everything this year’s group had to overcome, though, it was especially meaningful for Hill to watch the Firebirds continue their recent run of success this spring.
Seniors Michael Uhler and Joey Wood were the only two players with returning experience from a 2019 squad that made it to the state championship game. The rest of the senior class missed out on an important developmental year as juniors due to the 2020 season being canceled.
It all led to some early hiccups to start the season, but FSHS started to put it together with a 3-0 weekend during the River City Baseball Festival. Yet the team really started to show signs in practice before that with their competitive mentality.
“They bought in quickly,” Hill said. “It just took a little bit of time, but ultimately they bore the fruits of their labor and their willingness to commit.”
FSHS won as many as five in a row at one point, but its biggest victories came in May. The Firebirds earned a 5-2 win over crosstown rival Lawrence High at Hoglund Ballpark behind a stellar defense and a complete-game effort from Uhler.
With the season on the line, Free State then scored three runs in the final inning of its 3-1 upset victory over Wichita West in the regional championship.
“It was a really good feeling to get back to state,” Uhler said. “It seemed like every time I stepped on the mound, it was just another great feeling of having such a great team behind me. They’re just a great group of guys that made every single day special.”
Uhler shouldered the load for the Firebirds all year as the team’s ace. He went 7-4 in 12 appearances (11 starts) while posting a 1.21 ERA to go along with 54 strikeouts and 16 walks in 63 2/3 innings of work.
“Obviously we jumped on Michael Uhler’s back,” Hill said. “He was incredibly important to us in terms of success.”
Plenty of other players did their part as well. Senior Jake Roszak hit .429 in 14 at-bats with six singles. Senior Drew Bradford was instrumental as the leadoff hitter, posting a .294 batting average with 24 runs scored and nine RBIs.
Junior Maddox Burkitt, sophomore Brady Kern, senior Ben Stallard, junior Calvin Urish, junior Harrison Juhl and junior Grant Gregory all took their turns delivering key hits or making memorable plays on the defensive end this year.
With a number of key position players slated to return, Free State will have similar expectations entering the 2022 campaign.
“There’s a nucleus there to make some things happen,” Hill said. “I think it’s how bad they want it and how hard they are willing to work to make it happen. That will determine whether or not we’re going to be successful a year from now.”