Free State dominates Olathe Northwest in state softball opener

Free State batter Sara Roszak comes around on a pitch for a two-run double during the first inning against Olathe Northwest on Thursday, May 23, 2019 at Arrocha Ballpark.

The deja vu ran wild on Thursday afternoon at Arrocha Ballpark, where the Free State softball team advanced to the Class 6A state semifinals for the second year in a row with a dominant 6-0 victory over Olathe Northwest in Round 1.

Same field. Same team. Same result.

Even the magic bush that was a big, superstitious part of last year’s run to the 6A state title made an appearance on Thursday. Granted, it was a new version of the leafy-green good luck charm. But seeing how the shrub that then-freshman Georgia Rea accidentally fell into a season ago brought the Firebirds so much success in last year’s state tourney, the team made sure to bring a new version of the foliage this year.

Behind 13 strikeouts from sophomore starter Tatum Clopton and an offense that put six runs on the board in the first two innings, the 2nd-seeded Firebirds controlled the rematch of last year’s state title game from start to finish.

On defense, Clopton struck out the first batter of the game on three pitches to set the tone.

On offense, sophomore shortstop Sara Roszak who was a monster at the plate in three games at state last season, got things started with a 2-RBI double in the bottom of the first that missed being a grand slam by inches.

“Same inside pitch, same field, I was just like, ‘Hmm, there it is again. Might as well do the same thing,” Roszak said with a smile after the victory. “That was a great start to the game and that really got everyone energized.”

Freshman second baseman Macy Miles followed Roszak’s smash with an RBI groundout and the Firebirds led 3-0 after one inning.

In the second, freshman Jasmine Brixius, Clopton and Roszak — keeper of the rally shrub — again delivered three more runs for the Firebirds, who led 6-0 after two innings and never looked back.

Asked after the victory if she knew the six-run lead would be enough, Clopton, who allowed just three hits, smiled and admitted, “The more the merrier when it comes to runs. I’m never going to stop asking for runs.”

Two of the three hits Clopton allowed were infield dribblers. And the third came off the bat of a pinch hitter with two outs in the top of the seventh. In innings 2-6, Clopton retired the Ravens in order all five times, striking out eight and allowing just one base runner.

“My goal is always to come out and make a big statement,” said Clopton, who improved to 14-1 on the season and now has 183 strikeouts in 93 innings. “I want them to know I’m there and to know who’s in charge.”

While Clopton’s rocket right arm kept the Ravens (17-6) off balance most of the day, her defense did plenty to help her out.

Right fielder Taylor Burks’ perfect strike to home plate to cut down a runner and end the third inning set off a wild celebration en route to the Free State dugout and squashed any hopes Olathe Northwest had of stealing some momentum.

Even that had an element of deja vu to it.

“When that happened, I was just like, ‘Wow, this is familiar,'” said Clopton recalling a similar defensive gem at last year’s state tournament.

Miles added a defensive highlight, ranging to her right to stab a line drive and steal a base hit to end the sixth inning. The freshman second baseman did not so much as crack a smile as she ran off the field but finally broke down when the high-fives started coming her way when she reached the dugout.

From the new freshmen who contributed to Thursday’s victory to the veterans, like sophomores Roszak, Clopton and Georgia Rea (4-for-4, double, two runs) and senior Lauryn Jones (1-for-3, double), Thursday’s victory was exactly the kind of result the Firebirds (21-2) wanted to kickstart their title defense.

But they’re far from satisfied.

“We’ve been here before and we know we have to keep attacking and go into (Friday) still trying to prove a point,” Clopton said.

The Firebirds will face No. 6 seed Olathe North (18-5) at approximately noon in the day’s second semifinal.

The Eagles advanced to the semis by no-hitting No. 3 seed Mill Valley in a 2-0 victory on Thursday.

Free State beat O-North, 6-2, in an earlier meeting between the two teams during Sunflower League play. Clopton did not pitch in that game.

Olathe NW 000 000 0 — 0 3 1

Free State 330 000 X — 6 8 1

W: Tatum Clopton (14-1), L: Emily Bowman.

Highlights for Free State: Georgia Rea 4-for-4, 2B, 2 runs; Jasmine Brixius 1-for-4, 2 runs, RBI; Tatum Clopton 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 13 Ks and 1-for-1, 1 run; Sara Roszak 1-for-3, 2B, 3 RBI; Lauryn Jones 1-for-3, 2B.

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