Preview: Free State, LHS primed for big weekend at River City Baseball Festival

Lawrence High senior Cale Paden (5) celebrates with his teammates after hitting a three-run home run in the first inning of a game vs. Olathe South on April 4, 2024, at the Olathe District Activities Center.

The area’s busiest week in baseball has nearly arrived, as Free State and Lawrence High prepare to host more than 30 teams over three days for the annual River City Baseball Festival, beginning Thursday at FSHS, LHS and Hoglund Ballpark.

The Firebirds (12-3) and the Lions (10-5) each have plenty of senior stars who are eager to build on their strong starts to the regular season, and this weekend will give them some variety when challengers from outside the Sunflower League come to town.

Here’s the full schedule beginning Thursday:

photo by: Contributed photo

The official 2024 River City Baseball Festival Schedule.

Firebirds’ first day:

FSHS started the season 12-1 but has just lost back-to-back games. Now, Mike Hill’s team hopes to end that skid and return to business as usual against Blue Springs (12-7) on Thursday.

Pitcher Kyle Graves (5-1) entered Monday’s 8-6 home loss to Shawnee-Mill Valley with a 1.96 ERA with 22 strikeouts through five starts. Junior Blaine Larkin also raised his profile as a full-time starter this season, checking in with a 1.42 ERA and 26 strikeouts in just under 20 innings.

photo by: Conner Becker/Journal-World

Free State senior Kyle Graves (3) winds up his pitch during a game with Shawnee Mission East on Tuesday, April 9, 2024, at FSHS.

Three Firebirds – Graves and freshmen Finn Moore and Ryker Mahnke – are all batting above .400 through 40 or more plate appearances. FSHS’ batting order hasn’t faced many left-handed pitchers so far, Hill said in early April.

Blue Springs, of Missouri, has won three of its last five games. It started its regular-season schedule 1-3 before winning eight in a row, including a 4-0 rout over Kansas neighbor Blue Valley Northwest.

Chesty Lions’ first day:

Through 15 games, the Lions have certainly impressed. LHS enters Thursday’s evening game against Blue Springs South having won four of its last five games behind senior pitchers Vaughn Wells (4-1), Brooks Jones (2-1), Cale Paden (2-0), and Kyan Guss (1-1).

The go-to starters, Wells (0.90 ERA) and Jones (2.25 ERA), have split nearly 60 total innings for 65 combined strikeouts. Additionally, junior Brice Schwada has pitched 14.0 innings (5.00 ERA) through the first half of the season.

photo by: Conner Becker/Journal-World

Lawrence High senior Brooks Jones unloads a pitch during a game vs. Olathe South on April 4, 2024, at the Olathe District Activities Center.

LHS hasn’t had more than four runs since a 16-15 road loss at Olathe South in extras on April 4, but the hitting power that’s gotten the Lions to 10 wins is still there. Five Lions – seniors Sammy Stoll, Austin Crawford, Paden, Guss and Jones — are hitting above .300 after Monday’s 1-0 win over Olathe Northwest.

Blue Springs South, of Missouri, is 12-8 this season and is on a four-game winning streak.


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