The last remnants of winter weather are just evaporating from the ground and the first official day of spring isn’t until next week, but that won’t stop Free State High from opening its spring sports season.
Events kick off today with girls diving, continue Thursday with swimming and track, and the FSHS baseball team opens Monday with a spring break twinbill.
Here is a look at what all of the Firebirds’ programs expect out of the next couple of months.
A streak of nine straight winning seasons came to an end last year for Free State’s baseball program. In that span, the Firebirds never lost more than six games.
Though coach Mike Hill’s team finished 8-13 in 2012, he saw competitiveness in an inexperienced squad. Hill said some questions regarding the lineup remain — for now.
“I think we’re gonna need some time to get some cohesion,” the 16th-year coach said.
The Firebirds have what Hill calls “a good nucleus of position players” back: catcher Lee McMahon, first baseman Jacob Caldwell, second baseman Ryan Cantrell, shortstop Anthony Miele, third baseman Cameron Pope and outfielders Joel Spain and Joe Dineen. Caldwell, Cantrell and Miele are expected to pitch, as well, and Sam Hearnen returns as a go-to reliever.
Hill also expects varsity newcomers Zach Bickling, an outfielder, and Dane McCullough, an infielder and pitcher, to help Free State this year.
The Firebirds open their season at 1 p.m. Monday with a home doubleheader against Warrensburg, Mo.
As much as Free State’s boys golf team accomplished last season, this spring could be even more exciting.
The Firebirds took second at their Class 6A regional tournament and sixth at state last spring. Now coach Matt Gudenkauf has leadership and experience to lean upon each time FSHS tees off.
“I have four of the six (golfers) from last year returning,” Gudenkauf said. “Alex Green has had a great career at Free State, and will lead our team for the last time this year before going and playing at Washburn (University) next year.”
Other than Green, who finished 11th among individuals at state as a junior, the seasoned group includes seniors Wilson Hack and Max Soto and junior Hunter Dedloff.
Sorting out the rest of the varsity rotation hasn’t been easy, with winter weather delaying the group’s course time significantly.
The FSHS season opens March 27, when the Firebirds play host to the Free State Invitational at Eagle Bend.
Snow on the ground kept some teams, including Free State boys tennis, from starting tryouts and practices as scheduled. Coach Oather Strawderman finally saw the Firebirds on the courts last week and left intrigued, with newcomers playing well and returners looking even stronger.
Senior Richard Lu, part of a 10th-place state doubles team as a junior, leads FSHS. This year, he becomes the team’s No. 1 singles player.
“For Richard, it’s gonna be a good opportunity for him to see where he stacks up against the top people in the league and the regional,” Strawderman said.
While Lu is the only returning player who qualified for state in 2012, Free State has a senior-filled lineup, with Braden Clements and Miles Stevens serving as captains. Another senior, Brandon Juracek, will team with Stevens on the No. 1 doubles team. Strawderman said newcomers Aidan Dmitriev and Tucker Nickel could vie for the final varsity spots.
FSHS opens its season March 27 at Topeka High, for a quadrangular.
A 6A regional championship — a program first — and a 12-5-2 record made 2012 the most successful season in Free State girls soccer history. Only a state quarterfinal loss to Olathe East, which went undefeated en route to a state championship, kept the Firebirds from moving on to the final four.
Third-year coach Kelly Barah won’t have the exact same team on the field for FSHS this season, but there is enough familiarity and continuity to keep the returning players expecting just as much from each other this spring.
“We think we are as close of a team as last year,” Barah said, “and everyone has the same goals and is working hard in the same direction to achieve them.”
Most of Free State’s midfield and defense, which helped hold eight opponents scoreless last year, are back for another run. The defense is led by Madeline Caywood, Rylee Fuerst and Olivia Hodison, while Maddie Dieker, Hadyn Hutchison and twins Abbey and Chelsea Casady control the midfield.
The Firebirds open the season March 26 at Shawnee Heights.
With so many key members back from last year’s FSHS girls swimming team, which finished fourth in the Sunflower League and sixth at state, coach Annette McDonald feels even more optimistic than usual this spring. In fact, the Firebirds face the only problem with which coaches don’t mind dealing: depth.
“With 40 girls on the team,” McDonald said, “it will be a challenge to give everyone a chance to swim or dive in every meet.”
A state champion in both the 50 and 100 freestyle races as a freshman, sophomore Courtney Caldwell headlines a long list of FSHS returners. Senior swimmers Morgan Miller, Rosemary Black and Emma Norwood are back, as are senior divers Annie Soderberg and Jackie Zaitz. Junior returners are Lucy Sirimongkhon-Dyck, Kate McCurdy, Riley Koch, Olivia Loney and Bailey Watson. Caldwell’s sophomore class includes Eliza Anderson, Haley Johnson, Kat LaFever and Alexa Malik. FSHS also has incoming freshmen Cierra Campbell, Anna McCurdy, Syndney Sirimongkhon-Dyck, Linda Liu and Eliot Eckersley.
The Firebirds’ season begins at the Emporia Invitational — divers compete today at 4 p.m., and swimming events start Thursday at 4 p.m.
The loss of three starters from last season won’t devastate Free State’s softball team in 2013, because coach Lee Ice has plenty of experience back on the diamond.
“As a whole, this may be the most athletic team we have put on the field over the four years I’ve been with the program,” Ice said.
Second team All-Sunflower League selections as juniors, seniors Courtney Parker and A’Liyah Rogers lead a core group that includes utility players Ariana and Summer Frantz, two-year starters Remington Samuels and Whitney Rothwell and junior pitching anchors Meredith Morris and Kaley Delg.
Ice expects junior Courtney Elston and sophomores Lily Ross, Emily Bermel, Kylie Cobb and Paige Corcoran, as well as freshman Emily Byers, to make an impact in their first year with the varsity.
Both Parker and Rothwell enter the season out of the lineup with shoulder injuries, but Ice said underclassmen will fill in until they return.
Free State’s season begins March 30, when it hosts Shawnee Mission South.
The end of the 2012 season couldn’t have gone much better for Free State’s girls track team, which followed up a regional championship by finishing runner-up at state to champion Olathe East. When the season starts Thursday, coach Steve Heffernan expects the Firebirds to pick up right where they left off
“The girls have a good core of returners with state meet experience who should be able to compete for the top spot at the state meet (this year),” Heffernan said.
Juniors Bailey Sullivan, Alexa Harmon-Thomas and thrower Scout Wiebe, along with sophomores Gabrielle Dabney and Kiara Clark, provide FSHS with loads of scoring punch. And Heffernan thinks freshman Claire Sanner, who transferred from Lawrence High, and sophomore Hannah Shoemaker will add to the team’s depth.
The Free State boys took eighth place at state last spring, and Heffernan said they have shown progress across the board at pre-season practices, so he thinks they could improve upon last year.
Key returning contributors include seniors TJ Cobbs, Seth Maples, Dan Krieger, Trevor Hillis and Evan Smith, junior Stan Skwarlo and freshman Ronald White.
The Firebirds open their season by hosting a quadrangular against Olathe East, North and Northwest at 3:30 p.m. Thursday.