Rally in final inning helps FSHS baseball surge past Wichita West in regional championship

photo by: Nolan Deitrich

Free State's baseball team poses with the regional championship plaque Wednesday night at Friends University on May 19, 2021. The Firebirds, who were the No. 8 seed in Class 6A West, won the regional titles to advance to the Class 6A state tournament. Photo courtesy of Nolan Deitrich.

All season long, Free State’s baseball team has talked about playing its best when it matters most. And the Firebirds, who were the No. 8 seed in the West region, did just that on their way to capturing a regional title and advancing to the Class 6A state tournament.

Trailing 1-0, Free State scored three runs in the seventh to secure a 3-1 victory over top-seeded Wichita West in the regional championship. That was a few hours after FSHS cruised to a 12-2 victory in five innings over No. 9 Wichita Northwest in the opening round.

“The kids are ecstatic with what they’ve accomplished,” FSHS head coach Mike Hill said in a phone interview. “They’ve come such a long way from where they were in early March. They had some challenges throughout the year, and they developed some toughness.”

That toughness was especially evident in the seventh inning, when Free State (13-9) was down to its final three outs.

Senior Ben Stallard started the rally off with a leadoff base knock to center, which was only the second time all game that the Firebirds got the lead runner on base against Wichita West (16-4).

That turned out to be the burst of momentum that they needed.

Junior Grant Gregory moved Stallard over into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt after that. Senior Jake Roszak then brought Stallard home to even the score with a base hit to left. In a pinch-hit at-bat, junior Calvin Urish got on base with an infield single, and senior Joey Wood then loaded the bases with an infield single of his own.

Senior Drew Bradford had the honor of coming up with the clutch hit, driving in two runs on a base knock to center after hitting the ball well all day. Bradford led the Firebirds with two hits and two RBIs in the regional championship after going 2-for-4 in the first game.

After the game, Hill credited Stallard for getting the rally started.

“That leadoff base hit from Ben Stallard, who has just been a steady kid all year long, was the catalyst,” Hill said. “West played well; they pitched well and they played good defense. They didn’t make any mistakes. We had to string something together to do it, and it would have been difficult had we not got the leadoff guy on.”

Senior pitcher Michael Uhler closed out the game by recording the final three outs, putting the finishing touches on his complete-game performance with a state berth on the line. Uhler’s lone mistake occurred in the fifth, when he issued two walks with two away to the bottom of the order that eventually led to a run.

For the game, Uhler gave up two hits over seven innings of one-run ball to go along with three strikeouts and two walks.

“He was just in command of the whole game other than that hiccup in the fifth,” Hill said. “That’s because he throws multiple pitches for strikes; he just attacks the zone and allows the defense to play. He doesn’t feel the need to strike everybody out. He’s just a true pitcher.”

Uhler was one of the few returning players from the 2019 Free State baseball squad, a team that made it all the way to the Class 6A state championship game. He’s provided a consistent presence on the mound this year while the Firebirds have grown as a team.

And that growth is what made Wednesday’s performance all the more special. This is a team that has had its ups and downs in a year that featured both a five-game win streak and four-game skid during a nine-game stretch in April.

“Playing at Free State, it’s not easy,” Hill said. “We demand a lot out of our kids, and it’s challenging. They had to kind of go through the wringer a little bit, take some on the chin and come to practice every day and have to work through that.”

“They have been spectacular,” Hill added. “That’s really come together in the last couple of weeks because of their efforts and the fact that they just keep grinding and keep getting better.”

Bradford, Kern and Roszak all finished with multi-hit efforts in the regional championship.

Against Wichita Northwest, Maddox Burkitt paced the offense with two hits and two RBIs to go along with three runs scored. Stallard managed to draw three walks, while Brady Kern and Gregory were both issued two free passes apiece as well. Gregory and Roszak also each drove in two RBIs.

Sophomore Tyler Vigna pitched all five innings in the first win, giving up two runs on seven hits. He also struck out four batters and walked one.

The Class 6A state tournament will take place at LaRoche Baseball Complex in Fort Scott. The opening round is slated for Thursday, May 27.

Free State 3, Wichita West 1

FSHS 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 — 3 11 1

WW 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 — 1 2 0

Free State 12, Wichita NW 2

WNW 0 0 0 2 0 X X — 2 7 1

FSHS 2 2 0 5 3 X X — 12 9 0

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