I'll never forget my first exposure to Free State High athletics.
It was miserable.
On Aug. 18, the first day of practice for fall sports, I was at the football practice field waiting to talk to coach Bob Lisher.
Then it started raining. Hard.
After practice finally came to a conclusion, Lisher and I scrambled into a tin storage facility where I conducted my first Firebird interview amid the deafening roar of rain pounding the roof.
As I drove home to change clothes before work -- soaking wet and covered in mud -- I couldn't help but wonder if the driving rain was an omen of things to come.
For some of the first-year teams it was a gray and dreary season. However, like it was when freshman golfer Charlie Santaularia made his final putt at the Class 5A state tournament, the sun did shine.
Chances are it will continue to shine in the upcoming years.
But enough about the future, let's take time to remember the past. It gives me great pleasure to present the first-ever Freebie Awards for the inaugural athletic year at Lawrence Free State High School:
Coach of the year -- athletics director Steve Grant. I know, I know -- Grant isn't a coach. However, in addition to attending as many sporting events as he possibly could -- I think his record is four in a day -- he also had to deal with not having bleachers in the gym, the completion of the baseball field and the flap over the Firebird logo. On top of all that, there had to be tension at home seeing as his daughter, Jamie, was a swimmer at Lawrence High.
Team of the year -- Girls cross country. Talk about a tough choice. I couldn't decide between volleyball with its .500 record or the baseball team which far exceeded expectations, so I went with the first FSHS team to go to state. Besides, coach Ward Brethour deserves some good news after his girls basketball team went 0-21.
Male athlete of the year -- Paul Dillon. The thing that clinched it for me was seeing the junior at the baseball regional game in Topeka. Not only does he give 100 percent on the football field (second on the team in receiving), basketball court (sixth on the team in scoring), and track (state qualifier), but also the guy has a great attitude.
Female athlete of the year -- Betsy Lee. This sophomore was the leader of the state-qualifying cross country team and qualified for the state track and field championships in the 4x800 relay and 800-meter events. With two more years of eligibility remaining, it's safe to say Lee will have more state meets in her future.
Senior male athlete of the year -- Brett Larson. Here's a soccer player who could have stayed and had some success at LHS, but instead decided to go to Free State where the team suffered a one-win season. But Larson truly shined on the wrestling mat, where he qualified for the state tournament after leading the team in wins.
Senior female athlete of the year -- Brianne Bartz. Not only did Bartz contribute to her school as a cheerleader in the fall and winter, but also was a starting pitcher on the softball team. In fact, despite missing a couple of games with a wrist injury, Bartz still managed to tally two of the team's three victories.
Junior male athlete of the year -- Matt. I couldn't decide between Heider and Maigaard, so these two football, basketball and baseball players will have to share the award. Heider was an outspoken leader as the Firebirds' starting quarterback, point guard and center fielder/pitcher, while Maigaard led by example as a tailback, forward and left fielder. Maigaard also was nearly unstoppable at the plate, hitting the first varsity home run in FSHS history.
Junior female athlete of the year -- Jamie Morningstar. Yet another three-sport athlete at the high school, playing on the volleyball, basketball and softball teams. Morningstar also made the trek to Topeka for the regional baseball game and was the softball team's other winning pitcher.
Rising star -- Charlie Santaularia. The only reason he wasn't my athlete of the year was because he's only a freshman -- not even at the high school yet -- and only competed in one varsity sport. Then again, he's only a freshman and dominated that one varsity sport, winning the Sunflower League individual golf championship and finishing second at the state boys meet.
Game of the year -- Free State at LHS baseball. The Firebirds broke open a tie game in the top of the seventh on Maigaard's three-run double and held on to defeat the Lions, 5-2. Not only was it the first major head-to-head victory over LHS, but also it came against a pitcher (Jeff Davis) who hadn't lost in two years.
Best individual performance -- Carlos Ramirez. I know coaches preach that basketball is a team sport, but on Jan. 27 against Shawnee Heights, Ramirez single-handedly kept the Firebirds in the game. This senior scored 25 of his school-record 32 points during the second half while hitting four of seven three-pointers in a game Free State eventually lost.
Play of the year -- Marc Mondi. I don't know if it was because football is such a big deal in Lawrence or because of how early in the school year it was, but the Firebirds' first score -- a 79-yard touchdown reception by Mondi from Heider -- had to be exciting from a fans' standpoint. The fullback later would tally the longest TD run in school history, 78 yards against Shawnee Mission West on Oct. 3. Honorable mention goes to sophomore basketball point guard Jess Criswell, who hit a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer against Topeka Washburn Rural on Jan. 23.
Newcomer of the year -- the Firebird. The Free State logo has been in more trouble this year than Dennis Rodman. After a complaint was logged alleging the Firebird was eerily similar to the Temple Owl, the Free State logo was forced to undergo a facelift. No word yet if a certain local brewery will try to get the high school to change its name or not.