Next stop, state! Free State routs LHS 13-3 in regional baseball championship
photo by: Chance Parker
It only took six innings for Free State to punch its ticket to the state baseball tournament, besting crosstown rival Lawrence High 13-3 in the Class 6A regional baseball championship on Wednesday night.
Free State junior Kyle Graves and LHS junior Brooks Jones had a true battle on the mound, pitching nine combined innings. Graves, with help from his younger brother, Ben, pushed the Firebirds (16-6) past LHS, just over a week after Free State lost to the Lions in the regular-season finale.
“We didn’t change,” Free State coach Mike Hill said. “If you try to reinvent yourself at this time of the year, you’re in trouble. We worked on the things that we felt were important to improve on at the plate and I thought we did a good job of executing that tonight.”
The Lions finished their season as regional runners-up with a 10-12 record. LHS coach Brad Stoll hopes the loss — the final game for Lawrence’s five seniors — can serve as a lesson to those next in line.
“Every underclassman, it needs to burn in their soul — the way it went down, the way we played — look at the scoreboard and let it burn your soul because, if you’re a competitive person, you don’t want to go out like that,” Stoll said.
LHS looked poised to score from the beginning when junior Connor Nowak loaded the bags with an error-forced single at the top of the first. A flyout by Jones rendered LHS runless with Kyle Graves due up for the Firebirds in the bottom of the first.
Jones, loading the bases on two hits and a walk, struck out three consecutive Firebirds — Tyler Vigna, Mason Lester and Wesley Cupps — to save the inning for the Lions. But in the bottom of the second, Free State overwhelmed Jones, crossing two runs on an RBI triple by Michael Lickert and a sacrifice RBI by Kyle Graves.
Eager to respond, LHS filled the bags with one out when Kyle Graves walked junior Sammy Stoll with designated hitter Nowak due up. Rising to the challenge, Kyle Graves fired off his third and fourth strikeouts against Nowak and Jones to retire the side.
Giving up a leadoff walk, Jones quickly found himself with three Firebirds on base again when Lester successfully bunted his way to first with no outs. Sacrifice RBIs by Tyler Jeffries and Ryan Weishaar stretched Free State’s lead to 4-0 headed into the fourth.
photo by: Chance Parker
In the top of the fourth, junior Austin Crawford dinged in LHS’ first run of the game with a one-run RBI double. The mood turned sour, though, in the bottom side when Jones hit Lickert with the leadoff pitch. Jones, filling the bags with no outs, walked in two runs and gave up another on an RBI single by Lester.
LHS, holding Free State to three runs scored in the fourth, entered the fifth staring down a 7-1 deficit with Sammy Stoll leading off the inning. Ben Graves relieved his older brother at the top of the fifth and struck out Stoll and junior Cale Paden to strand Nowak at second (2B) ending the inning.
Jones, giving up a leadoff base hit to Lickert in the bottom of the fifth, struck out Kyle and Ben Graves consecutively before tossing out senior Brady Kern, producing the first clean inning for the Lions since the first.
Things weren’t so clean for Free State at the start of the sixth. Ben Graves, walking three consecutive batters, sent Koen Myers (1B) across home plate and consequently loaded the bases with two outs. LHS managed just one more run, scored off a single by Nowak, before Graves and the Firebirds retired the side.
Not looking for a down-to-the-wire fight, the Firebirds responded with six runs produced on a walk and three RBI singles by Weishaar, Kern and Jase Grady, sealing the game outright by mercy rule. Hill and Free State hope to carry their momentum from regionals onto the big stage next week.
“All I’m thinking about is next Thursday,” Hill said. “We’ll take tonight and then get to work tomorrow. It’s all about the next one.”
The state tournament will return to Lawrence’s Hoglund Ballpark this year. It begins May 25.
Lawrence 000 102 X – 3 5 4
Free State 022 306 X – 13 17 2
W – K. Graves; L – B. Jones