Sorry, hoops-heads: Baseball king in this town

Monday, May 4, 2009

Athletes flock to Lawrence from all over the country to form a perennial college basketball powerhouse. Football players come to town to be a part of Mark Mangino’s rising program, which stands a good chance to open this coming season ranked in the Top 25. Before the high schools split, Lawrence High routinely won state championships in football.

Yet, there is no question that when discussing Lawrence natives and move-ins, not athletes imported to attend Kansas University, this is a baseball town first.

“When I coached at Lawrence High, I used to cut between 70 and 100 kids,” former Lions coach Lynn Harrod said. “I always said we needed to have another high school. I used to cut kids who went on to play in college.”

The split has made competing for state titles a difficult challenge in football, although Free State did make it to the 2008 Class 6A title game. The baseball programs each have won one state title since the split.

Lawrence High (12-4) and Free State (11-1) have a combined record of 23-5 this season. KU’s 33-16 record also is cause for pride for the Lawrence baseball community since four of Ritch Price’s players graduated from Lawrence high schools. Left-handed reliever Travis Blankenship, reserve first baseman Brett Lisher and starting second baseman Robby Price all played for Mike Hill on Free State’s 2006 state championship team. So did right-hander Scott Heitshusen, who is sitting out the season because of an arm injury after transferring from Michigan State. Middle infielder Jordan Dreiling is red-shirting. (Freshman Kelson Boyer pitched nine innings for KU before being dismissed from the team. He pitched for Free State as a senior).

Price’s right fielder, Brian Heere, leads KU with a .367 batting average and .474 on base percentage. He played baseball for Lawrence High and also was Dirk Wedd’s quarterback.

Former Firebirds Jake Hoover (Dayton) and John Sneegas (Western Illinois) also are playing Div. I baseball, as are former Lions Nick DeBiasse (Rice), Tyler Knight (Sam Houston State) and Daniel Parker (Illinois).

“I think it says a lot about the high school programs and the coaches,” Heere said. “Mike Hill and Brad Stoll are good guys. I loved playing for Brad Stoll.”

It also says something about the quality of the youth baseball programs in the community. Heere said it was Mark Ice, who coached him from kindergarten to sixth grade, who taught him how to play the game.

“He really instilled the love of the game into me,” Heere said. “He has a great love for the game, and he taught me a lot.”

Hill deflected credit to youth coaches and parents.

“What they get from them is a solid base of fundamentals and understanding of how to play the game,” Hill said. “We benefit at our level because we don’t have to go back over what we consider basics.”

Stoll pointed to the organizational skills and work ethic of Lee Ice of the parks and recreation department enabling young ballplayers to have the opportunity to play so many games throughout the summer.

“He works his tail off getting so many young kids involved,” Stoll said. “And one of the other things that I think is important is in this town, at both high schools, you see the coaches promoting multi-sport athletes. That’s a real big key. You’re going to get more athletes out if you say, ‘Look, there’s no reason to focus on one sport.’ You look at our guys who are playing Div. I baseball, all four were multi-sport athletes.’’

Six of Stoll’s eight position players play another sport for the school.

Stoll also said the depth of coverage from local newspaper, television and radio outlets gives Lawrence schools an advantage over Kansas City-area schools.

“That kind of feeds on itself,” he said. “You want to play for the high school you grew up idolizing. When you’re young and you see kids like Ryne Price (Free State, KU, minor leagues) and Curtis Ledbetter (LHS 2000 state champions, Nebraska, minor leagues) play as passionate and hard as they do, you want to be that kid when you get to high school.”

Youth-league ballplayers of today have a beautiful left-handed swing to emulate in Free State’s sophomore Cody Kukuk and a bulldog of a talented lefty pitcher to dream about becoming in Lawrence High junior Albert Minnis.

The town just keeps pumping out quality baseball players.