Defending state champion Firebirds aspire to ‘go take’ another title
photo by: Carter Gaskins/Journal-World Photo
Sure, some of them already own Class 6A state championship rings. But members of Free State High’s softball team know that jewelry they earned in 2018 guarantees them nothing as they try to defend their title this week.
The Firebirds enter their very short trip to Arrocha Ballpark at Rock Chalk Park for this year’s state tournament in quite a different spot.
“We kind of snuck up on people last year,” head coach Lee Ice pointed out.
Twelve months ago, FSHS was the No. 8 seed with seven losses and had to knock off No. 1 Blue Valley just to get out of the first round.
In 2019, the Firebirds are the No. 2 seed, 20-2, and one of the favorites to win it all, along with undefeated No. 1 seed Washburn Rural (21-0), a team that defeated FSHS, 5-2, in April.
The difference in Free State’s path to a championship this season has everything to do with the health of the program’s sophomore ace, Tatum Clopton. Shoulder issues kept Clopton from pitching most of her freshman season. Once she was cleared, the Firebirds became even more imposing and took off to capture the 6A crown.
Ice obviously expects Clopton to feature heavily into the game plan at this year’s state tournament, once again. That’s why he wanted her to throw in both games of a regional at FSHS this past week.
“You’re not going to take the ball away from her,” Ice said of his starting pitcher, who is 13-1 this season with 170 strikeouts and a 0.73 ERA. “If she wants it she’s got it.”
During a dominant season, Free State has won 15 games by six or more runs. The Firebirds said that made this past week’s 1-0 regional championship victory over Haysville-Campus all the more beneficial, because they don’t expect wins to come easily at the state tournament.
“I think it was better for our mindset, putting us more in intense situations instead of the lowkey, cruising through it,” sophomore Georgia Rea said of securing a return trip to state with a 1-run victory in what was a scoreless game through 5 and a half innings. “I think it was better for us to get fired up.”
Clopton added that playing a doubleheader at the regional was good to experience, too, because the Firebirds could potentially play two games on Friday, if they advance past Olathe Northwest (17-5) in the first round.
“I think now we’re better prepared for what to expect at state,” Clopton said.
Ice has told his players since the beginning of this spring that even with all they accomplished in 2018, this Firebirds roster boasts even more talent.
“But now it’s the energy,” Ice said of the key to success, “and everything else that comes into this time of year.”
For those members of the lineup who led FSHS to a title just a year ago, Rea said, the intention always has been to make it two in a row.
“It’s definitely just play as a team, get fired up, and make routine outs, routine plays, routine hits, and just rely on everyone, because we’re a family,” Rea said of their collective mindset.
And while Rea admitted the challenge of winning back-to-back state championships “definitely” comes with pressure, the Firebirds hope to offset that by not worrying about the targets on their backs.
“You have to come into a situation thinking not that you’re defending it, but that you have to go take it,” Rea said. “Everyone’s on equal playing ground this year.”
The Firebirds open their title defense against Olathe Northwest (17-5). The two Sunflower League teams haven’t played each other since Free State’s season opener, a 4-1 FSHS victory on March 25.
Originally scheduled for an approximate start time of 3 p.m., the third game on Thursday’s schedule at the 6A state tournament between FSHS and ONW will now begin at a yet to be determined time based on how long the first two games take to play. KSHSAA announced Wednesday all state softball and baseball sites will use a rolling format this week, with the next scheduled game starting 25 minutes after the previous one ends.
Class 6A state softball championship
Game 1: No. 1 Washburn Rural (21-0) vs. No. 8 Blue Valley (16-6), 11 a.m.
Game 2: No. 4 Derby (18-2) vs. No. 5 Topeka (16-3)
Game 3: No. 2 Free State (20-2) vs. No. 7 Olathe Northwest (17-5)
Game 4: No. 3 Mill Valley (20-2) vs. No. 6 Olathe North (17-5)