Free State softball will return to state after gritty win over Manhattan

photo by: Sarah Buchanan/Special to the Journal-World

Free State's Sarai Preston is greeted by her team after a home run against Dodge City on Wednesday, May 15, 2024, in Lawrence.

Twice on Wednesday night the second-seeded Free State softball team gave up a run by a fraction of a second, and twice the Firebirds shook it off as though nothing had happened.

In the fourth inning, seventh-seeded Manhattan finally got to FSHS ace Elsa Carrillo when Isabelle Peabody worked her way into a favorable count, then drove the ball to the corner in right field. She rounded third as the Firebirds were preparing to throw home, and barely reached the plate before the tag by catcher Cydnee Price. After discussion, the umpires ruled Peabody was indeed safe for an inside-the-park home run that put the Indians up 1-0.

Free State promptly shook off its scoreless slump to claim a 4-1 lead, but Manhattan would strike again by the narrowest of margins when Mckenzie Reid slid into home and just barely thwarted the Firebirds’ attempt at an inning-ending double play.

No matter. Carrillo and the Firebirds’ defense stranded two more runners in the sixth and gutted out the seventh on their way to a 4-2 home victory.

“It’s kind of like I just told them, you know, (at the) beginning of the season, we started out with some of the best teams in the Sunflower League, and we lost a couple of those games,” Free State coach Charley Bowen said. “And I think that built us, and we knew that we could play with them.

“And over the few months, weeks or whatever, they came together as a team, and I think that made them be able to be composed in games like this because we’ve already been in a lot of them.”

The result of the hard-fought victory over Manhattan — which followed a run-rule blowout against Dodge City — is that Bowen’s club gets another chance to go back to the 6A state tournament, which begins May 23 at Arrocha Ballpark.

“I’m biased, but I don’t think there’s a group of girls that deserve it … more than this group of girls,” Carrillo said. “We have nine seniors and we all play and I think we’ve all just worked so hard for this point, for our record, to host here. There’s definitely something about defending your home turf, and I think we did it very well today.”

Added Bowen: “It’s always something that you plan for at the beginning of the year, and you practice and you practice to have the opportunity. These girls accept that challenge, and they worked really hard to get that opportunity. To go back-to-back, two years in the row, is just a great feeling, and I’m just happy for the girls.”

As for what the Firebirds (19-6) need to do to succeed at state?

“Just play with their heart like they just did,” Bowen said. “We had different girls come up tonight, and just (believe). As long as they go out and have fun and believe they’ll be fine.”

Carrillo said they won’t be intimidated by the schools they line up against.

“A lot of the teams that we’re going to see at state, we’ve played before,” she said. “I don’t think that the competition’s going to be new to us. We just got to power through, keep our defense going, keep our bats sharp and I think we’ll be just fine.”

photo by: Sarah Buchanan/Special to the Journal-World

Free State pitcher Megan Kohl smiles as she meets with her defense in the fourth inning against Dodge City on Wednesday, May 15, 2024, in Lawrence.

Game 1: Free State 12, Dodge City 1

The Firebirds swung hard from the first few pitches of the afternoon and struck for two runs in the opening inning, with Abry Hill legging out a leadoff triple, Delaney Bruhns bringing her home for a sacrifice fly and then pitcher Megan Kohl smacking a home run to left-center field.

Free State left a couple of runners stranded in the second, but wouldn’t make the same mistake in the third. A stretch of 10 of 11 batters reached base, and in that time the Firebirds scored nine runs, highlighted by two-RBI triples from Sarai Preston (on a ball that bounced past Dodge City’s shortstop into the outfield) and Hill again (on a deep drive to center). Kohl brought FSHS’ lead to double digits with a double to the wall.

Myra Hamilton sent a line drive toward the third baseman that deflected and allowed her to record another triple, tacking on one more run to conclude the third inning at 11-0.

Kohl had been mowing down the Red Demons’ lineup, but she did give up a home run to junior Tatum Steiner on the first pitch of the fourth inning.

That accomplishment was quickly equaled by Preston, who hit a first-pitch home run in the home half.

Line score

Dodge City 000 10 – 1 2 3

Free State 209 1X – 12 8 0

W — Kohl; L — Musslin.

Highlights for FSHS: Hill 2-2, 2 R, 2 RBI; Kohl 5.0 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 11 K, 2-2, 2 R, 3 RBI, 1 BB; Preston 2-3, 2 R, 3 RBI, 1 BB.

photo by: Sarah Buchanan/Special to the Journal-World

Free State pitcher Elsa Carrillo pitches against Manhattan on Wednesday, May 15, 2024, in Lawrence.

Game 2: Free State 4, Manhattan 2

Manhattan posed the first threat in the third inning of a game that from the opening moments had the makings of a pitchers’ duel between Free State’s Carrillo and the Indians’ Jaden McGee.

Reid launched a double to left field that moved Kailey Wetherington to third with just one out. But Carrillo was able to reach out and snag a line drive, then find Hill at third base for the double play on Wetherington.

More intrigue arrived, however, an inning later, in the form of Peabody’s inside-the-park home run.

But in the home half of the fourth, Preston was able to continue her red-hot day at the plate, even after falling behind 0-2 with two outs.

She battled back against McGee to force a full count, then hit a line drive to center field for a double to score Zoe Milburn. Then she advanced to third during the following at-bat, at the conclusion of which Carrillo, helping her own cause, legged out an infield single to put Free State back in front 2-1.

“I think that once we have one catalyst like that first domino falls, then they keep falling,” Carrillo said.

It did look much easier for the Firebirds from then on. Price drew a walk, and then Grace Rothwell drove another full-count pitch to right-center field for a two-RBI triple, in turn tripling Free State’s lead.

McGee finally got Hill to ground out, but the damage was done.

With one out in the sixth and Reid on third base, Peabody sent a bouncing ball toward Hill. Hill faked a throw to home and got the first out at third base, but Reid charged toward home and once again narrowly beat out a throw to Price. Carrillo gave up two more singles, but on the second, Hill was able to apply a tag at third to end the inning.

Line score

Manhattan 000 101 0 – 2 6 0

Free State 000 400 X – 4 7 0

W — Carrillo; L — McGee.

Highlights for FSHS: Preston 2-3, R, RBI; Rothwell 1-2, 2 RBI; Carrillo 7.0 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 11 K.


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