The promise of more sunshine and warmer weather isn’t the only thing energizing spring athletes at Free State High this time of year.
Starting up a new season and building upon past successes will be just as invigorating for the Firebirds.
Here’s a look at what each FSHS spring sports program is looking forward to in the months to come.
There may be holes to fill and young players with which to do so, but members of Free State’s baseball team aren’t about to let those challenges undermine their excitement for the upcoming season.
Who will step onto the scene as impact newcomers remains to be seen, but Firebirds coach Mike Hill has some able pieces returning to the diamond this spring in senior first baseman Montana Samuels, senior pitchers JD Prochaska (LHP) and Trent Johnson (RHP), junior catcher Lee McMahon and sophomore outfielder Joe Dineen.
FSHS, a regional runner-up in 2011, finished the season with a 16-6 record. Hill acknowledged it won’t be easy for the Firebirds to live up to the gold standard of the past nine seasons, when the program was nationally ranked each year.
A demanding schedule that includes a trip to play teams in Springfield, Mo., and the River City Festival will provide plenty of tests for Free State.
“Our kids have worked very hard,” Hill said, “and, to this point, have exceeded our timeline for their development as a group.”
The Firebirds open at noon Saturday at Blue Valley Northwest.
With brilliant weather the past few weeks, Free State’s boys golf team hasn’t had to deal much with the typical March headaches of rained out (or, worse, snowed out) practices. Coach Matt Gudenkauf hopes the rest of the season will go so smoothly.
The Firebirds won their fair share of medals in 2011 and have two state qualifiers — juniors Alex Green and Wilson Hack — returning to the team. Seniors Colin Becker and Lee York are expected to contribute, too.
There aren’t many spaces to fill for FSHS, which lost just one senior from a year ago. Gudenkauf doesn’t know who will compliment his returning varsity golfers, but junior Addison McCauley and freshmen Austin Kasti and Matt Siler could be in that mix.
Between the team’s experience and the fact it will be hosting a Class 6A regional at Eagle Bend Golf Course, Gudenkauf likes what lies ahead this season.
“I feel pretty good about our chances to qualify for the state tournament as a team,” he said.
FSHS golf opens March 26 at the Blue Valley West Invitational.
A regional championship and five out of six Free State boys tennis players qualifying for state highlighted a successful 2011 season for coach Oather Strawderman’s program.
Although four of those state qualifiers have moved on, the third-year coach likes the varsity experience returning to the court for the Firebirds this spring.
Senior Andrew Craig first went to state playing doubles as a sophomore, then qualified as an individual as a junior. He and co-captain Nick Pellet, also a senior, play tennis year-round and are expected to guide the rest of the team, including varsity newcomers Richard Lu and Brandon Juracek, both juniors.
Strawderman expects much out of his captains, whom he characterized as strong students taking a heavy load of AP courses.
Free State tennis opens March 28 at a Topeka High quad.
There are plenty of reasons for second-year Free State girls soccer coach Kelly Barah to like the team he has coming back this season.
The Firebirds went 10-7-1 in 2011 and lost in a regional final to Manhattan, and they have all but two of their starters coming back this spring. But what Barah really enjoys is the approach of the players: “They’re a great group of athletes who are very coachable and want to learn every day,” he said.
Seniors Elena Auer, Amber Hicks, Kylee Loneker and Regan Keasling, juniors Rylee Fuerst, Madeline Caywood, Chelsea Casady and Margaux Gill, plus sophomore Madeline Dieker all return for FSHS, and Barah expects the junior varsity players from last season to step up and make a splash as well.
The tough opposition in the Sunflower League could challenge Free State, but Barah likes the team’s chemistry and expects the players’ experience and improved soccer knowledge will bolster its chances.
The Firebirds debut on March 27 with a home match against Shawnee Heights.
Free State’s girls swimming team has the numbers — 38 swimmers and six divers — for another solid season this spring.
Coach Annette McDonald said the Firebirds are eager to get started, so the biggest challenge will be getting the swimmers ready for each early meet while building endurance technique and remaining competitive.
FSHS has state experience on its side. Seniors Hana Arch, Katie Kimbrough and Caroline King, juniors Annie Soderberg, Morgan Miller and Rosemary Black, as well as sophomore Kate McCurdy all have competed on the Sunflower State’s biggest stage.
Hoping to join them as state qualifiers are returning swimmers senior Maggie Arensberg, juniors Emma and Catherine Norwood and sophomores Bailey Watson and Marilee Neutel. Plus, McDonald said the following program newcomers could score points for the Firebirds: junior Helmi Viinikka, sophomore Lucy Sirimongkhon-Dyck and freshmen Eliza Anderson, Courtney Caldwell and Kat LaFever. Junior Jackie Zaitz and freshman Haley Johnson join FSHS as divers.
The season begins for FSHS with Wednesday and Thursday events in Emporia.
Coming off an eighth-place finish in the Sunflower League and a 9-11 mark in 2011, Free State’s softball team might be poised for a breakthrough season under third-year coach Lee Ice.
The Firebirds’ field will be nearly covered with returning starters: seniors shortstop Sam O’Brien, center fielder Alex Hill and first baseman Elizabeth Hazlett, juniors outfielder A’Liyah Rogers and catcher Courtney Parker, and sophomores left fielder Remington Samuels and third baseman Whitney Rothwell.
Said Ice: “Kids that have been with the program now for at least three years are beginning to understand what it takes for us to be successful in the Sunflower League. All the girls have worked extremely hard to get us to where we’re at and are buying into doing whatever it takes for us as a program to take the next step.”
The biggest challenge facing FSHS will be its inexperienced pitching. But Ice expects sophomore hurlers Meredith Morris and Kaley Delg to make an impact.
Free State’s season begins April 3 with a home twinbill versus Olathe South.
Free State track coach Steve Heffernan isn’t about to get ahead of himself, but he can’t help but feel good about what he sees with this year’s team.
“We have our largest girls team in school history and the largest group of freshmen,” the coach said. “Both are good signs for success this season and in the future.”
The present doesn’t look too bad for the Firebirds, who have 14 athletes with state experience on their girls and boys rosters.
The FSHS girls were third at the 6A state meet in 2011, and the boys finished 12th.
Key returners for the girls are throwers senior Brie Mingus and sophomore Scout Wiebe, hurdler and jumper Alexa Harmon-Thomas and distance runners sophomore Bailey Sullivan and senior Lynn Robinson. The boys have sprinter senior DayShawn Berndt, junior jumper Demarko Bobo and distance runners senior Kain Anderson and sophomore Stan Skwarlo coming back.
Heffernan also expects freshmen Gabby Dabney and Kiara Clark to make an impact as hurdlers and jumpers for the FSHS girls.
With the numbers on the Firebirds’ side, Heffernan has a good problem to solve: “We have some depth this year, so we will be trying to figure out which events are the best fit for kids and our team,” the coach said of the early-season challenge awaiting Free State.
The FSHS season begins March 27 with a Lawrence High triangular.