The Frontenac Raiders had both of the preseason favorites — baseball, softball — in the Crawford-Neosho-Cherokee League.
Both teams held up their end of the bargain by claiming league titles — back-to-back for both — and the baseball and softball teams returned 17 of a possible 18 starters, led by a strong, veteran senior group on both sides.
Headed into the Class 4A state tournament in Salina, seniors Lindsey Gorham, Jennifer Long, Nayna Fields, Libby Warrick, Sam Bonner and Ashton Alex have played on Raider teams with a combined record of 75-15 (.833 winning percentage) and 48-10 CNC (.828).
“Everything that they’ve been recognized for, they completely deserve,” Frontenac head coach Cassie Buche said. “They’ve worked their butts off to get where they are. It hasn’t been handed to them and it’s not because it’s a fluke. In four years, in all sports, they’ve done tremendous things. Softball tends to be a favorite for most of them and it’s my favorite as well.
“We’ve got a great bond, between them and me, and I don’t know if I’ll ever have a group like this again. . . . Everyday, I look at them like I’m so lucky to be a part of this group and to have the opportunity I’ve had to spend so much time with them and watch them grow as people. They’ve all made me a better person. It doesn’t get much better than this.”
Frontenac (20-1) plays No. 6 seed Pratt in a 7 p.m. first round game Thursday. The Raiders made their way back to state after an one-year absence, their first 4A appearance in only their first season being a 4A.
“Last year was not a good ending to a great season,” Buche said. “I don’t want to take away from the great things we did last season but there’s a lot of things we didn’t do that we should have done. I think the reality was there after the game (loss to Colgan at regionals) was once it’s over, it’s over. There’s no going back and I think for this group of seniors, that was it. If we’re going to win a state championship, we have one season left to do it and they’ve played well all year. They get along great.”
“It’s definitely special going back with this group of girls, especially being my last year and being it’s the last time I’ll ever get to play with this group of girls,” Gorham said. “That makes it even more special than anything I’ve ever been a part of, honestly.”
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Fields said. “It’s awesome that we’re going to be the smallest 4A school (Frontenac and fellow state qualifier Rock Creek have 258 students) going into the state tournament.”
Page 2 of 3 - Frontenac placed second in 3A two years ago.
“I feel really good about it this year,” Gorham said. “A couple years ago, we were not knowing what to expect because it was our first year going but with us going a couple years ago and going now, we have a lot more experience and a lot more confidence.”
In three regional tournament games, Frontenac blanked Parsons, Baxter Springs and Fort Scott — relying on pitching and defense.
“Any time you can play 17 innings and not give up a run, you’re doing something right in the circle with Lindsey and defensively,” Buche said. “We’ve come a long way defensively and I think that’s a great thing to have going into the state tournament.
“I wasn’t real excited about how well we didn’t hit in that championship game (a 1-0 win over Fort Scott) but when you get to state, they’re never high-scoring games. It may be a 1-0, 2-0 game and I am completely confident in our defense, I know Lindsey will do a great job in the circle and I know that the bats will be there when we need them. We’re just looking at it one step at a time. We’ve got to get that first game in and get it under our belt, then we’ll go from there.”
Gorham owns a 18-1 record this season with a 1.50 ERA and 89 strikeouts in 112.1 innings. She’s thrown 112.1 of a possible 132 innings.
Frontenac presents a challenge for opponents with its depth.
“Someone asked me about our averages,” Buche said. “I think eight of our nine are hitting over .300 and that’s great. There’s so much confidence in the bat behind them like Ashton, our little slapper, she had the game-winning RBI against Fort Scott. Our 3-4-5s are 0-for on the night and your two-hole’s hitting them in. It’s awesome as a coach to have that depth and it’s great for kids to have faith and confidence in their teammates.”
“We don’t just have nine good players,” Gorham said. “We have 13-14 good players. Our bench is deep and I have full confidence in all of them.”
Eight of the nine regular Frontenac hitters are batting above .300 — Long .437, Ryleigh McCartney .429, Rachel Amershek .424, Bonner .391, Fields .386, Haley Wilson .367, Alex .350 and Gorham .302. Six players have at least 14 RBI — Fields 23, Amershek 20, Gorham 19, Bonner 16, Wilson 15 and Long 14.
“We’re a family,” Buche said. “I told somebody that yesterday. It doesn’t matter who’s getting the credit or who’s getting the pat on the back. If we’re winning, everybody’s happy. When we’re losing, everybody wants to help everybody get better. They’re not selfish.”
Bearing out this family bit, Buche’s father, Francis Buche, joined the Frontenac coaches this season.
Page 3 of 3 - On Tuesday, the Raiders were practicing away hard in the old gymnasium.
“Practice has been great,” Fields said. “We’re all excited and we’re all working really hard because we’re ready to go take on the state championship. There’s a sense of accomplishment but we’re just not satisfied.”
“All of us have put in more than enough work,” Gorham said. “All of us have worked so hard just for the shot to even win. With as much work as we have put in, we have enough preparation and enough stamina to win.”
The Greenbacks enter state with a 17-6 record. Pratt defeated Hoisington 10-0 in the regional semis and Colby 9-0 in the regional final.
“I’ve got a lot of information on them and I’ll continue to call some coaches tonight but the reality is that I have to control what I can control, which is this group right here,” Buche said. “I can scout until I’m blue in the face and I can tell them this girl’s going to swing at the first pitch, blah blah blah, but if we don’t do what we need to do, then it doesn’t matter.
“Our focus since regionals is how can we get better individually, how can we get better as a team because if we’re playing at our best, there’s nobody as good as us, at least we don’t think.”