Free State baseball, softball teams get another chance at state glory

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

Free State's Abry Hill celebrates with teammates Mallary Hice and Sophia Hallton against Manhattan on Wednesday, May 15, 2024, in Lawrence.

The Free State baseball and softball teams have become well acquainted with playing for state titles.

Each team has won at least one state championship in the past decade — baseball in 2015, softball in back-to-back years between 2018 and 2019 — and baseball is now riding a streak of six straight berths in the state tournament, while softball has earned five in the same time period.

It all adds up to a lot of time playing before friends and family at the University of Kansas’ Hoglund and Arrocha ballparks, the frequent host facilities for the 6A state championships.

They will again serve in that capacity this season, with first pitch set for Thursday. The Firebirds’ fifth-seeded baseball team gets started against No. 4 Topeka/Topeka-Cair Paravel at 1:15 p.m., before fourth-seeded softball takes on No. 4 Wichita-Haysville Campus at 5 p.m.

Both will be looking for redemption after last year, when baseball settled for third place and softball lost to Olathe Northwest in the first round. A win would move either team on to a doubleheader Friday, when the state title will be decided.

Here’s more on what to expect Thursday.

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

Free State senior Kyle Graves delivers during the City Showdown on Tuesday, May 7, 2024, at Hoglund Ballpark.


The Firebirds beat Dodge City 6-0 and rallied past Haysville Campus 8-2 in a convincing regional performance, shaking off a 3-3 conclusion to the season to improve to 21-6 overall and get back into the state tournament.

Senior Kyle Graves, already a reigning All-Area player of the year, has been the headliner for Free State, as he’s hitting .488 with a 1.214 OPS and a team-high 25 RBIs, while also serving as one of the team’s top starters with a 7-1 record and a 2.15 ERA. But the Firebirds have depth in their lineup, with four additional key contributors in Mason Lester, Ryker Mahnke, Andrew Zimmerscheid and Ben Graves batting above .300, not to mention a pair of pitchers with sub-2 ERAs in Blaine Larkin and Tyler Jeffries.

Even beyond that, it was Cole Wright who came up with the key two-RBI single that got Free State going in its regional title match against Haysville Campus.

The Firebirds are 2-2 in four overall games against their fellow competitors in the state bracket. What does not bode well is their 8-3 loss to Olathe West on April 25. The Owls, who have lost just one game all season, are the top seed and so Free State’s likely opponent if it can get out of the first round.

To do that, it’ll have to get past the joint team of Topeka High and Topeka-Cair Paravel, which has played six fewer games than FSHS for a record of 17-4. The Trojans hit their stride in April after getting swept in a doubleheader by Manhattan, as they proceeded to win 12 of their final 13 games.

According to, Topeka had to score nine straight after trailing 6-0 early against 15th-seeded Wichita East in the first round, then relied on 6 2/3 innings of solid pitching by Nate Plankinton and a two-RBI double by Drayden Acosta to slip past Derby 2-1 for a regional title.

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

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


The Free State softball team got hot a week into April and has only lost one game since. Better yet, the team it lost to — Olathe North, which dinged the Firebirds for a season-high 12 runs and ended up the top seed in the 6A East Regional — did not make the state tournament.

The Firebirds have played and won a lot of tight games this year, largely on the strength of their pitching, which has allowed an average of less than three runs per game for one of the lowest totals in the state, and less than two earned runs. That is a credit to senior Elsa Carrillo, with her 1.43 ERA and 0.84 WHIP, who has put together highlight performances like on April 2 against Olathe South, when she pitched 10 scoreless innings and hit a walk-off home run, or when she allowed one run in nine innings in a City Showdown pitcher’s duel.

Carrillo was tested but came out on top in a battle against Manhattan’s Jaden McGee for the regional title last week. Megan Kohl, a potent hitter in her own right with a .463 batting average and 1.263 OPS, pitched in the Firebirds’ run-rule victory over Dodge City that set up the battle with the Indians; she and Grace Rothwell have backed up Carrillo when needed.

Other top hitters include Sarai Preston (.395 batting average, 1.190 OPS), Myra Hamilton (.371, 1.000) and Abry Hill (.337, .912).

FSHS finished one spot ahead of Haysville Campus in the final 6A West standings, but the two schools played nearly completely different schedules, the only exception being that the Firebirds beat Topeka/Topeka-Cair Paravel 6-4 in April and then the Colts went on to take down the Trojans 6-3 for the regional title (after demolishing Wichita South 15-0 in the first round).

Campus’ schedule was also different in that it consisted exclusively of doubleheaders, usually one per week. That included one four-week stretch in which the Colts went 3-5, perhaps a somewhat deceptive result because it included doubleheaders against 6A No. 1 seed Derby and 5A No. 2 seed Maize South.

Campus is making its first appearance at state since a first-round loss in 2017. The winner of Thursday’s game will have to take on Derby the following afternoon at 1 p.m.

Other state action

A pair of area teams will be in action out in Salina for 4A state competition.

Eudora softball returns to the scene of its third-place finish last year at Salina South. The third-seeded Cardinals may have a chance to avenge last year’s defeat against eventual state champion Wamego, but first they’ll need to get through No. 6 St. George-Rock Creek, which they face at 5 p.m. Thursday.

Tonganoxie baseball will face Rock Creek, but it’ll have a bit more of an uphill battle as it enters as the No. 8 seed at Salina-Dean Evans Stadium.


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.