What could have been: Free State softball stars lament missed opportunity to win third consecutive state title

photo by: Carter Gaskins

For the second year in a row, the Free State softball squad on May 25, 2019 was the last team standing at the Class 6A state tournament at Arrocha Ballpark.

Friday was supposed to be the start of something historic for the Free State softball team.

Winners of back-to-back Class 6A state championships the past two seasons, the Firebirds were poised to make a run for a third consecutive state title and were considered by many as the favorites to win it.

If successful, Lee Ice’s team would have become just the second team in Kansas softball history to win three in a row, joining an Olathe East team that won four straight 6A state titles from 2004-07.

Only six Kansas softball programs have won back-to-back state titles, and O-East was the only one able to extend that streak.

But instead of going to daily practices and battling a tough schedule, all with an eye on joining the exclusive club, Ice’s team sat inside and watched as the spring went by without a single pitch being thrown.

“It was rough,” said junior shortstop Sara Roszak, who said she was irked by the game day alerts she kept getting on her phone. “We just didn’t get any of what we expected.”

Past Snapchat threads and Timehop posts from their run at this time during the past two years have reminded the Firebirds of what they’re missing.

“This past week has just been flooded with memories of winning regionals and winning state, and it’s been fun to see but also hard to see,” junior Georgia Rea said.

Making matters worse was the fact that practices had already begun by the time the season was called off because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The most emotional day for me, by far, was when we knew it was over and we had to go turn our uniforms in,” said Roszak, who has committed to play college softball at Kansas. “That day was so sad.”

Junior ace Tatum Clopton and Rea, who play on the same club team together, said they experienced similar emotions shortly after the season was canceled.

“I just remember I was at a workout and I came home after they had called off the season and my phone was just blowing up,” said Clopton, who is committed to Oklahoma State. “It was shocking. I did not expect the whole season to get canceled. I thought we would go more into the summer or have a shortened season.”

Added Rea: “It didn’t even feel real until after the first month when I was like, ‘All right, we’re really not playing.'”

While the time away from the game they love and inability to compete with their friends who have become like family was hard enough, all three Free State juniors said they struggled with how hard the lost season must have been on Free State’s three seniors, Haley Lockwood-Peterson, Bailey Culbertson and Myah Olson.

“My heart just went out to them,” Clopton said. “We were going to win three state titles in a row, and they were going to go to college saying they won three in a row. And now it’s just over.”

Lockwood-Peterson, who started and played a key role on each of the past two title teams, was not shy about sharing her emotions of the canceled season.

“I cried a lot,” she said. “It was very disappointing. A lot of the girls that I play high school ball with I’ve played with my entire life.”

The loss of her senior season forced Lockwood-Peterson to shift her focus to college much sooner than she expected. She has signed to play at NAIA Cottey College in Nevada, Mo., and believes the disappointment of the past two months will pay off in the future.

“I hope that it will make me enjoy the next four years a lot more,” she said.

As for the trio of juniors who already have made their mark on Kansas high school softball, their focus is on finishing what they started.

Clopton, Rea and Roszak can’t do anything about the lost season or missing out on the chance to match Olathe East with four consecutive state titles. But they can make it three in a row. And they believe they will be more driven than ever to do just that.

“I’m really looking forward to having that last year to cap off things and having a senior night,” Roszak said. “I’ve definitely thought, ‘What if my grade doesn’t get a homecoming or a football season or a winter formal,’ but I’m feeling pretty good about the spring and us being able to finish off our careers the right way.”

Added Rea: “I’m very excited for next year. It’s going to be a dog fight. I don’t want to walk out without another state championship and another ring on all of our fingers.”

— Journal-World sports writer Shane Jackson contributed to this story.

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