The cold air won’t go away but Free State High is fired up to begin its spring sports season.
The FSHS baseball season opened up last weekend, girls swimming and diving will kick off today and Thursday, and the track and field team hosts its first event of the year on Friday.
Here is a look at what all of the Firebirds’ programs expect out the upcoming season.
Free State baseball coach Mike Hill doesn’t want to call it a rebuilding year. The expectations remain the same from last year’s Sunflower League championship team.
However, it’ll be up to the team’s four returning starters to continue the program’s winning ways. Senior infielder Cameron Pope, junior infielder Cooper Karlin, senior pitcher Ryan Cantrell and senior outfielder Zach Bickling will be leaned on in the early parts of the season. Another returner, senior outfielder Joel Spain, is out for at least a month with an elbow injury.
The key returners are also in charge of helping some of the team’s top newcomers — freshman Jacob Pavlyak, sophomore Hunter Gudde and freshman Jay Dineen — adjust to the varsity level.
“(The seniors have) been around awhile, they understand the expectations of the program and what needs to be done,” said Hill, who was selected as the Sunflower League Coach of the Year last season. “I’m pleased with their leadership in terms of word and deed, so we need to get the rest of the kids to follow in line, and I’m sure that they will. But our seniors have been great.”
The Firebirds opened their season by sweeping a doubleheader against Warrensburg, Mo., last weekend. They will go on the road to face Ozark, Mo., at 4:30 p.m. Friday.
Free State’s softball team has plenty of senior leadership and overall experience to make a return trip to the state tournament.
The Firebirds return All-League senior infielder Whitney Rothwell, All-League junior outfielder Emily Bermel and a strong balance of pitching — seniors Meredith Morris and Kaley Delg — and hitting: seniors Remington Samuels and Courtney Elston, juniors Kylie Cobb, Lily Ross and Paige Corcoran and sophomore Emily Byers.
“There’s no doubt this team can swing the bat a little bit, and we have experience on the mound with two senior starters,” fifth-year coach Lee Ice said. “Only question early in the season is putting the pieces together defensively to be a team that can play for a Sunflower League championship and ultimately a state championship.”
The Firebirds hope they can use their deep bench to replace the production of last year’s graduated seniors. Key newcomers include juniors Elyse Boxberger and Carrie Howland and sophomores Cali Byrn and Kate Stanwix.
FSHS will face Shawnee Mission South in its season opener at 1 p.m. on April 5.
Free State’s girls track and field team has all of the necessary pieces to defend its state title while the boys hope to improve on a 17th-place finish last year.
The girls return a strong core of top state tournament finishers including: seniors Alexa Harmon-Thomas, Bailey Sullivan and Scout Wiebe, juniors Kiara Clark, Gabbi Dabney and Laura Kennard. Add in freshmen Emily Venters, Kiran Cordes and Abby Zenger, and they are one of the favorites to win this year’s state championship.
“All but one girl is returning from our state championship team from last season, so we’re looking forward to a chance to compete for the state title again in May,” first-year coach Jordan Rose said. “The boys team has made huge progress over the past couple of years and we’re excited to see what they can do with this season now that they’ve had more experience.”
The boys are led by senior Stan Skwarlo, a Wichita State signee, senior Trevor Hillis and junior Ryan Liston.
The Firebirds will host the Free State Invitational at 3:30 p.m. Friday.
After finishing second at state last year, Free State’s girls swimming and diving team may be the favorites to take the title this season.
Junior Courtney Caldwell, who set state records in the 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard freestyle, highlights a long list of returners. The 200-yard freestyle team featuring Caldwell, sophomore Cierra Campbell, junior Eliza Anderson and sophomore Sydney Sirimongkhon-Dyck are back after breaking a Class 6A record at state last year.
Seniors Lucy Sirimongkhon-Dyck and Kate McCurdy, juniors Haley Johnson, Kat LaFever and Alexa Malik, and sophomores Anna McCurdy and Trenna Soderling are all returners with state tournament experience.
“They’re pretty excited about being able to step it up a little bit,” coach Annette McDonald said. “We’ve got some freshmen talent coming in that can really make a difference. We’ve got the depth and let’s just hope we all get there healthy.”
The freshmen that McDonald said could make an impact include: Simone Herlihy, Kara Krannawitter, Rowan Plinsky, Carter Stacy, Charlotte Crandall and Zoe Prather.
Free State’s divers will compete in the Emporia Invitational at 4 p.m. today, while the swimmers will race on Thursday.
Fourth-year coach Kelly Barah has spoken with caution this preseason, but Free State’s girls soccer team is primed for a big season. After losing in the regional championship last year, the Firebirds return 14 seniors.
FSHS will also feature three Division-I players — Maddie Dieker, Olivia Hodison and Jessica Ferguson.
“These girls have played a whole lot of soccer, to be honest with you,” Barah said. “When you show up to practice and not have to try and work on the little things, it makes it so much easier, and it makes game management so much easier because you have a bunch of coaches on the field as well.”
Freshmen Molly Bryant and Sabrea Platz are also expected to contribute as the Firebirds hope to improve their offense from last year.
FSHS will play host to Shawnee Heights at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
The weather has limited Free State’s golf team to only a pair of practices since tryouts ended. With a young team, it may take some time to see positive results.
Senior Hunter Dedloff is the only returning senior with regional and state experience, taking 83rd at the state tournament last year. The Firebirds will also have senior Colton Steele, but otherwise it’s a lot of fresh faces.
“I hate to call it a 'building' year,” ninth-year coach Matt Gudenkauf said. “But my goal this year is to develop the younger guys, and get them as much experience on the golf course as possible.”
Since there’s been limited practices, the varsity rotation is still in flux.
The boys golf season will begin in the Shawnee Mission South Invitational on Monday at Meadowbrook.
It's going to be difficult for Free State's boys tennis team to replicate last year's success when five of the six varsity members qualified for the state tournament. All of them were seniors and graduated.
Now senior captains Stephen Anderson and Jackson Schneider will be in charge of making sure this season isn't strictly rebuilding. The Firebirds are hoping junior Sam Solis and freshman Ian Pultz can make that difference.
"We have a lot of dedicated, year-round players to help replace the graduating senior class," fifth-year coach Oather Strawderman said.
Free State will open its season in the Topeka Invitational on April 2.