BACK ON TOP: SM East baseball reaches goal ‘years in the making’ with state title

The Lancers form a mosh pit near first base after beating Lawrence Free State in extra innings. Photo by Joseph Cline
The Lancers piled up near first base after beating Lawrence Free State in extra innings. Photo by Joseph Cline

In the days following SM East’s third place finish in the State 6A baseball tourney last year, head coach Jerrod Ryherd’s phone wouldn’t stop going off. Relegated to the consolation game after falling to district rival SM Northwest in the semifinal, his young team was finding it hard to move on.

“The kids were all texting me right after, the whole team was wanting to figure out how we could get back and get to the finals,” Ryherd said. “We got so close, and that feeling, the disappointment, it didn’t go away.”

It would be pretty tough for any of the members of 2016’s Lancer team or their fans to be disappointed this morning.

With a gritty nine-inning win over the defending champion Lawrence Free State Firebirds at Hoglund Park in Lawrence on Saturday, the 2016 Lancers became just the third team in school history and the first since 1995 to bring home a 6A baseball championship plaque.

After beating Wichita West in an 11-1 route Friday (the game was to have taken place Thursday but got delayed by rain), the Lancers picked up right where they left off on Saturday, jumping all over Washburn Rural in the semifinal. Lancer ace Joey Wentz, the 6’5″ left-hander whose 95-mile-per-hour fastball and fearsome power with the bat have him projected to go in the first round of next week’s MLB draft, got the start for SM East, and put on his typical clinic, fanning nine Junior Blues in six innings of work.

But Wentz saved his most impressive feat on the day for the batter’s box, as he came up in the sixth and belted a two-run home run that extended the Lancers’ lead to 10 and brought the game to an end on account of the mercy rule. It was, as Ryherd described, “a ball hit as hard as I’ve ever seen. It was probably the hardest ball he’s ever hit.” Take a look:

That win gave the Lancers a shot of momentum as they entered the final, which started just a half hour after their first game of the day. The Lancers and Firebirds were familiar foes, having faced off as the first- and second-ranked teams in the state a month earlier. But the Firebirds hadn’t seen pitcher Henry Miller, who made his season debut for SM East in the team’s Regionals win last week. Miller looked sharp again as he went through the Firebirds lineup for the first couple of times, working through five innings giving up just one run. But in the top of the sixth, Free State’s Nathan Strathman tagged Miller for a two-run double that tied the game at three and would ultimately send it into extra innings.

The Lancers’ Luke Anderson shifted from the infield to the pitcher’s mound and held the Firebirds scoreless for 3.1 innings of work. In the bottom of the ninth, SM East’s Henry Churchill laced a single down the left field line, and then moved over to second on a sacrifice bunt from Spencer Mustoe. Speedy freshman Philip Cole took over for Churchill at second, and made the most of his pinch running opportunity. Cole darted all the way from second to home when Firebirds second baseman Mikey Corbett botched a throw to first, scoring on the error to bring the game to an end.

With that run, the Lancers culminated a reclamation project that began when Ryherd took the helm in 2010.

“We finally got there,” Ryherd said after the game. “It was a goal seven years in the making.”

For Wentz, who will likely have to make a choice between heading to college at the University of Virginia or signing a professional baseball contract after the draft June 9, the moment was “surreal.”

“I can’t really describe the feeling,” he said. “Just to be able to do this with my teammates and my best friends…The draft has kind of been in the background all year, but my main objective was always to win state. And it was always kind of like, ‘We’re either going to win, or it’s going to be a failure of a season.’ And we won.”

Senior Henry Miller delivers a strike in the 9th inning to prevent the Firebirds from scoring. Photo by Joseph Cline
Henry Miller made just his second appearance of the year for the Lancers by starting the state final game. Photo by Joseph Cline
Coach Rhyherd is doused in a Gatorade bath by junior Jake Randa after the win. Photo by Joseph Cline
Coach Ryherd is doused in a Gatorade bath by junior Jake Randa after the win. Photo by Joseph Cline
Following the game, players were indivdually awarded pins and the team celebrated by hoisting their newly acclaimed state title. Photo by Joseph Cline
Following the game, players were indivdually awarded pins and the team celebrated by hoisting their newly acclaimed state title. Photo by Joseph Cline
Coach Rhyherd finds senior Joey Wentz and junior Luke Anderson after the game to congratulate them on the win. Photo by Joseph Cline
Coach Ryherd finds senior Joey Wentz and junior Luke Anderson after the game to congratulate them on the win. Photo by Joseph Cline
Junior Jake Randa drives a ball into left-center field for a single. Photo by Joseph Cline
Junior Jake Randa drives a ball into left-center field for a single. Photo by Joseph Cline
Junior Trevor Thompson salutes the crowd after a play at second base. Photo by Joseph Cline
Junior Trevor Thompson salutes the crowd after a play at second base. Photo by Joseph Cline
The Lancers pose for a team pic with the Kansas 6A State title after defeating the Firebirds. Photo by Joseph Cline
The Lancers pose for a team pic with the Kansas 6A State title after defeating the Firebirds. Photo by Joseph Cline