Free State softball sits 12 outs away from second consecutive state title

Free State runner Lauryn Jones (27) celebrates with Taylor Burks after scoring the go-ahead run after a double by Emma Stanwix during the second inning of the 6A state championship game against Washburn Rural on Friday, May 24, 2019 at Arrocha Ballpark.

Three timely hits in a pair of Class 6A state tournament games on Friday put the Free State softball team 12 outs away from winning its second consecutive state title.

But thanks to Mother Nature and unbeaten Washburn Rural, there remains work to be done before the defending champs can hoist the trophy again.

After knocking off Olathe North, 1-0, in Friday’s semifinals, the Firebirds jumped on top of Washburn Rural, 1-0, in the state title game before lightning around KU’s Arrocha Ballpark forced a weather delay.

After waiting for more than an hour to see if play could resume, the completion of the championship game was pushed to 10:05 a.m. Saturday.

Asked for the good and the bad of the situation before he left the complex, Free State coach Lee Ice focused solely on the positives.

“We’re up 1-0 and we’re 12 outs away from winning back-to-back state championships,” Ice said before getting in the team van to head home. “It’s really a mindset thing right now, and they’re going through the same thing we’re going through.”

Almost.

The difference between Washburn Rural (23-0), which advanced to the title game with a 6-5 win over Derby in Friday’s first semifinal game, and the Firebirds is the simple fact that the majority of Free State’s still-young roster has experience in this very spot.

And three of those veteran players came up huge on Friday to set the table for Free State to achieve its season-long goal of bringing another trophy to the Free State trophy case.

In the semifinal, sophomore pitcher Tatum Clopton did all the damage for the Firebirds (22-2), tossing 7 innings of one-hit ball while walking one and striking out nine in her first ever game against Olathe North.

At the plate, it was Clopton’s RBI groundout in the bottom of the third that drove in the game’s only run. Clopton’s hit scored Taylor Burks, who reached on a walk to set up the game’s only run.

Free State managed just four hits in the semifinal victory — Georgia Rea, who was 4-for-4 at the plate on Thursday, recorded two of the hits, including her second double of the tourney — but the Firebirds did not need any more.

With Clopton cruising and the Eagles (18-6) down to their final out, the Free State ace forced a shallow pop-up in front of home plate to end the game. Fittingly, it was Clopton who caught the final out.

“I saw it in the air and I was like, ‘I’ve got to get this. I’ve got to end this game.’ And that was such an amazing feeling,” Clopton said. “Up at bat, I knew I just needed to get something on the ground to produce and it gave us the run we needed.”

In the title game, a pair of FSHS seniors combined for back-to-back hits in the top of the 2nd inning to put Free State on the board first.

Third baseman Lauryn Jones got it started by muscling a base hit up the middle. And she scored one pitch later when catcher Emma Stanwix ripped the first pitch she saw from WRHS ace Kasey Hamilton to the gap in left-center field. Both Jones and Stanwix delivered hits for the Firebirds in their semifinal win, as well.

Jones said she hoped her scrappy at-bat early in the title game would lead to a spark, and she praised Stanwix for backing her up.

“Especially in this game, finding any way you can to get a hit is very, very important,” Jones said. “I’ll take anything to get on. I’m sure a lot of the girls feel the same way.”

Added Ice of Stanwix’s RBI smash: “She caught up with that one pretty good. It doesn’t surprise me that a senior that’s a four-year letter winner delivered something like that.”

During the delay, the Firebirds stayed loose in a variety of ways. Clopton kept heat on her arm in case play resumed. The rest of the team napped, danced and generally enjoyed the experience of being together in the spot they were in.

“It’s very weird,” said Clopton of starting Saturday’s title game continuation in the middle of the action. “But it’s very exciting. I just have to bring my A game and I’m hoping we keep pushing through and stay focused. We’re just trying to have fun and enjoy the moment.”

Said Jones of whether getting back into the proper mindset to finish what they started would be tough for the Firebirds to do: “With the group of girls we have, it definitely won’t take much to get us fired back up and get us going.”

Olathe North 000 000 0 — 0 1 0

Free State 001 000 X — 1 4 1

W: Tatum Clopton (15-1), L: Jayme Dean.

Highlights for Free State: Georgia Rea 2-for-3, 2B; Clopton 7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 9 Ks, RBI; Taylor Burks 0-for-1, BB, run; Lauryn Jones 1-for-2; Emma Stanwix 1-for-2.

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