Sometimes, when the cold wind howls as it did Friday night, Lawrence feels as if it should be a hockey town. Yet, to know anything about the talent that dots baseball diamonds at both high schools year in and year out is to know that this is a baseball town to the bone, even on nights bones shiver.
A four-day stretch that started with Friday’s series-opening 10-3 victory for Kansas University against Missouri shines a light on local baseball.
The probable pitchers for Monday’s Free State-Lawrence showdown at the new LHS field are hard-throwing left-handers who have major-league baseball scouts buzzing. Free State junior Cody Kukuk and LHS senior Albert Minnis are scheduled to face each other, which is subject to change. Kukuk orally committed to KU, and Minnis signed with Wichita State.
Asked if he would be at the high school game Monday, KU coach Ritch Price smiled and said, “Yeah, absolutely. I wouldn’t miss it.”
As if scripted to do their parts to begin building the hype, former local high school players Brett Lisher, Robby Price, and Travis Blankenship, all seniors from Free State, and LHS grad Brian Heere, a fourth-year junior, delivered huge performances for the Jayhawks. Lisher, Price and Heere combined to go 6-for-13 with five RBIs. Lisher smacked a two-run home run, and Price doubled and tripled. Heere had three hits, one on a perfectly placed bunt, drove in two runs and jacked his batting average to .403. Blankenship, a lefty, tossed two shutout innings with three strikeouts and hit 88 mph on the radar gun.
“You know what, this is a really good baseball town,” Price said. “We have two outstanding baseball coaches at both institutions. Both high schools have won state championships since I’ve been in town.”
Price deserves some of the credit, too, for sharing a quality his professional idol, former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, rode all the way to Cooperstown. Like Lasorda, Price is a guy whose positive energy helps young players wash away insecurities. Like Lasorda, Price makes players believe in themselves, so key in a sport of failure that is played to such a large extent between the ears.
Lisher and Blankenship, best of friends, had their struggles, but they were always there for each other, and their coach never stopped believing in them.
“Blankenship tells me every day he shags for me in B.P. it’s one less day he gets to go on the field and be a Kansas Jayhawk,” coach Price said. “There’s a lot of pride involved there.”
Lisher beamed when asked about Blankenship’s performance.
“I’m proud of him every time he steps on the mound because he competes,” Lisher said. “He hit a rough spot earlier in the season, but he has his head on straight. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s been looking real good lately.”
Blankenship, Heere and Lisher have known each other for as long as they’ve known baseball.
“We’ve been playing together with the Rebels since we were 6 or 7,” Blankenship said. “We’re all living our dream up here with the University of Kansas, and to play together is special.”
Especially when beating Missouri.