There are only of handful of certainties as each of Free State High’s seven spring sports prepare to begin their seasons.
Many starting spots and varsity roles are still being hashed out as practices are barely two weeks young, leaving each coach with many decisions still to make.
In each sport, though, the few things that are evident provide more than enough reason to be optimistic.
While coach Mike Hill lost six starters from the perennially strong baseball program, he will return a strong group, headlined by senior pitchers Cody Kukuk and Colin Toalson, All-State performers a season ago who signed to play at Kansas University in 2012.
With senior standouts Tim Lewis and Preston Schenck also returning, Hill and the Firebirds, ranked No. 16 in the country, will look to improve upon a fourth-place finish at state last year.
“Given the returners and the reputation of our program, we feel like we’ll be in the mix,” Hill said.
Free State’s first game will be on Saturday vs. Blue Valley Northwest at home.
Meanwhile, boys tennis coach Oather Strawderman has set his early-season ladder — a ranking of all players from 1 to 30 — but he said the level of competition in practice leaves slots in flux.
Aside from being thrilled about his largest turnout ever, Strawderman is ecstatic about the team’s challenging schedule, which features a tournament at the Plaza in Kansas City. The team’s first match will be March 30 at the Topeka Quad.
“There’s no better way to build a better program than to go to quality events,” Strawderman said.
Track and field coach Steve Heffernan also saw the largest turnout in his 14 years at FSHS, and couldn’t be more pleased with the energy he says it’s brought to the program.
Among top returners like Hayley Francis, Austin Hoag, Preston Newsome and Lynn Robinson, the Firebirds have a gifted crop of freshmen. Free State’s first event will be on March 29 at Lawrence High.
“For me, I can’t wait until the first few meets to really see what we’ve got,” Heffernan said. “Because you can’t really tell in practice.”
The youth trend holds true with coach Lee Ice’s softball team. The Firebirds, who will play their first game on March 29 at Olathe East, are looking to a group of sophomores and freshmen to replace 11 graduated seniors.
“I do have experience returning,” said Ice, citing juniors Alex Hill and Sam O’Brien, among others. “But I also feel there’s a lot of competition for the remaining (3-4) spots.”
The same can be also be said for Kelly Barah’s girls soccer team.
Barah knows what he has in seniors Annie Libeer and Hillary Yoder, as well as other returners like Kylee Loneker, and hopes their proven abilities and leadership can blend with a talented freshman class that includes Alexa Harmon-Thomas. Barah will lead his team to its first match this spring on March 25 vs. Lansing at home.
“We have some really good freshman that even if they don’t contribute to the varsity team, it bodes well for the future,” he said.
Similarly, girls swimming and diving coach Annette McDonald returns three-year standouts Reilly Moore and Kara Mishler, but will look to replace nine graduated seniors who helped FSHS to a third-place finish at the state tournament last year. Free State’s first meet is today at the Emporia Invite.
“An ideal season would be to qualify as many girls for the state championship that we possibly can and have the dilemma of who to swim and who to dive,” McDonald said. “We’re going to really have to work hard for that.”
The boys golf team, led by sixth-year coach Matt Gudenkauf and senior Jake Sakamura, hasn’t been able to log many rounds yet because of the inconsistent weather.
The Firebirds don’t use indoor simulators either. Gudenkauf said he wasn’t a big proponent of that anyway.
“They’re not real,” Gudenkauf said. “They don’t let you fix anything like you can on real grass.”
The FSHS golfers will begin their season on March 28 at the Blue Valley West Invitational.