Free State baseball, softball eyeing lengthy runs at state
photo by: Chance Parker
It’s only natural the Free State baseball team is included in the Class 6A state championship, as the tournament returns to Lawrence for the first time since 2019.
The No. 3 seed Firebirds (16-6) are set to meet No. 6 seed Shawnee Mission East (14-8) after rolling through Lawrence High at home 13-3 in last week’s regional championship.
It’ll be the fourth time this year that Free State will take the field at Hoglund Ballpark — and this time, they’re playing for keeps.
“What we’re trying to do is replicate, as much as we can, what a state tournament looks like,” Free State coach Mike Hill said about their past stops at KU. “Hopefully, that does pay dividends and we’ve been up there so many times, we want a championship there. We’ve lost twice in the state championship game there.”
Free State has experienced some unpleasantness at Hoglund Ballpark this season, too. The Firebirds fell to Rockhurst 10-0 during the River City Baseball Festival and capped its regular season with a 10-1 loss to LHS in the annual City Showdown.
Since then, it’s safe to say Hill and the Firebirds have been cooking. Free State racked up 23 combined runs at regionals last week. Both the semifinal and regional title games featured impressive starts by Free State pitchers Jackson Waggoner and Kyle Graves, each holding their opponents to three runs or fewer.
The Lancers are hot, too. SM East has won eight consecutive games heading into the state tournament, including a 6-3 victory over SM Northwest in last week’s regional championship in Overland Park. The win saw junior reliever Weston Lyerly grind out a save, allowing two runs on three hits and seven total strikeouts.
Lately, SM East has been more than capable of moving the bats. Their regional run saw 14 combined hits through two games, including three doubles in the regional title game. The Lancers have scored six or more runs in four of their last five games, currently averaging just under five runs per game.
Finding the right balance begins with matching opponents’ tempo at the plate, Hill said.
“When we’re struggling, we’re typically not clicking offensively,” Hill said. “That forces us to pitch a little differently. Take chances, defensively, a little different. A little more than we normally would and sometimes that can backfire on you.”
The Firebirds and Lancers will be the final quarterfinal matchup on the opening day of the state tournament on Thursday, with the first pitch slated for 5:45 p.m. at the conclusion of the third quarterfinal game between defending state champ No. 2 Blue Valley West (17-5) and No. 7 Olathe North (14-8).
Winners of both the third and fourth quarterfinal games will meet in the semifinal matchup on Friday at 1:15 p.m.
Free State softball ready for battle with Olathe Northwest
photo by: Chance Parker
Across town, the No. 8 seed Free State softball team will meet top-seeded Olathe Northwest in the first quarterfinal of the Class 6A state championship at Arrocha Ballpark.
The Ravens (22-0) are the real deal. O-Northwest strolled past Mill Valley 16-0 in last week’s regional title game and have tallied a whopping 88 runs during this month alone. Free State coach Charley Bowen is plenty familiar with the Ravens’ grip on the Sunflower League.
Free State dropped its season opener at O-Northwest 7-0 back in March. This time around, Free State’s in for a win-or-go-home matchup that will test the Lady Firebirds (10-12) from top to bottom, Bowen said.
“They pretty much ran the table,” Bowen said of O-Northwest. “It’s going to be everything we could ever ask for.”
The Lady Firebirds entered their regional as 10-seed underdogs, piling on 16 uncontested runs against Wichita North to meet Garden City for a chance at the state tournament. With the help of a late three-run homer, Free State waltzed past the Lady Buffaloes 5-2 and returned home with high hopes for a state run.
For Bowen, the big stage won’t put any extra pressure on his group.
“There’s a lot of people that didn’t expect us to get to state and our emphasis is don’t make it any bigger than it is,” Bowen said. “It’s just a game. All we ask for them to do is go out, have fun and enjoy the moment playing in a state softball game. Just have fun and play.”
First pitch is slated for 11 a.m. The winner will advance to the semifinal round against the winner of No. 4 Washburn Rural (19-3) and No. 5 Shawnee Mission North (18-4) on Friday.