Firebirds enter fall season with huge expectations
The 2018-19 season is already underway for the Free State fall sports programs.
FSHS girls golf competed in a tournament Wednesday to officially kick off a new year. The volleyball team is set to face the top-ranked squad in Class 6A on Saturday, while most programs will begin play next week.
Here is a peek at all of the Firebirds’ fall sports teams for the 2018 campaign:
About this feature
Preps Notebook is a new feature from Journal-World high school sports reporter Shane Jackson that will run several times a week and highlight results and other information about local teams. For more on this new coverage plan, please read Shane’s introduction here.
Free State’s football team is loaded again after a double-digit win season in 2017.
The Firebirds went 10-1 last year and ultimately suffered an overtime loss to Derby in the 6A quarterfinals. Entering 2018, they are listed in the top-five of most preseason polls, including a No. 1 ranking via catchitkansas.com.
Senior running back Jax Dineen is one of four returning starters on offense, along with senior receiver Keenan Garber, junior offensive tackle Turner Corcoran and senior offensive lineman Shane Skwarlo. Garber verbally committed to Kansas State, while both Corcoran and Dineen have been heavily recruited this offseason.
Junior quarterback Malik Berry is set to lead the offense in his first year as the team’s signal caller. Berry has experience starting on the defensive side of the ball, which returns five starters. Senior linebacker Jalen Nash and junior defensive tackle Lovette Epelle will be key contributors for the defense.
“We have to get better conditioned,” said Bob Lisher, who is entering is 22nd season. “I don’t want to have to score a lot of points in the first quarter and then hang on. We can be explosive, there is no doubt about that.”
Free State has a road meeting with Olathe West on Friday, Aug. 31.
A season-ending loss to Manhattan still looms large for the Free State volleyball team.
The Firebirds, who are ranked No. 4 in Class 6A via the Kansas Volleyball Association preseason rankings, are using last year’s defeat in the sub-state championship as motivation. Free State dropped the crucial match by two points, falling just short of a second consecutive trip to the Class 6A state tournament.
“We left last year with a small pit in our stomach knowing we could have done a little bit better,” second-year head coach Keely Hammontree said. “The returning varsity team has something to prove.”
Senior Rachel Hickman, a Kansas commit, and junior setter Mya Gleason are back after breaking program records last fall. Hickman set the career record for kills, while Gleason shattered the career record for assists.
In addition, the Firebirds will lean on junior outside hitter Kaitlyn Hamilton, freshman outside hitter Kenzie Marcum and junior setter Emily Arensberg. Hamilton verbally committed to Indiana State in the offseason.
“We learned a lot last year,” Gleason said. “It was really disappointing and heartbreaking for our team, but we are all in this year.”
Free State squares off with Blue Valley North (No. 1 in Class 6A) at 2 p.m. Saturday at St. James Academy.
It will be business as usual for the FSHS cross-country team this fall.
On the girls side, the Firebirds are coming off a seventh-place finish at the state cross-country meet and expect to be more competitive this season. Senior Julia Larkin, who has earned three state medals, is among the key runners, along with senior Emma Hertig, senior Anna Riley, junior Erin Fagan and junior Emily Stone.
Junior Charlie Johnson, who was the lone qualifier for the boys cross-country team in 2017, will lead a squad vying for a return to the state tournament. Sophomores Brock Cordova and Ethan Sharp are also expected to take a huge step.
“Our girls made it to state last year and we were really injured by the time we got to state,” Free State head coach Steve Heffernan said. “We have everybody back and healthy, so we are excited to see if we can improve on our finish from last year. The guys didn’t make it to state for the first time in a while.”
Free State starts the 2018 season at 4 p.m. Thursday at JCCC.
The Firebirds are determined to make a leap this season.
Free State returns plenty of talent from last year’s squad, which finished ninth at the state gymnastics meet. Sophomore Talia Gay is back after claiming second in the all-around rankings during her first trip to the state meet.
“What Talia has this year that she didn’t have last year is experience,” second-year coach Michelle Seidner said. “Now she knows what she is working with and now she knows what she needs to do.”
Mikyla Williams and Savanna Dey are also expected to be key contributors this fall on a team that has 14 competitors.
“It’s going to be a lot different from last year,” Williams said. “Last year, we didn’t have as many people as we do this year.”
Free State begins the season on Tuesday, Sept. 4, at the Lawrence quadrangular.
There will be more familiar faces on the Free State boys soccer team this fall.
Last season, the program was inexperienced and it led to a 7-8-2 record before falling in the first round of regionals. This year, though, expectations are higher with more of a veteran squad.
“We are returning a team that should know how to play 6A soccer now and in the Sunflower League,” ninth-year head coach Kelly Barah said.
Senior Drew Covington and Landon Sloan will provide plenty of leadership as the team captains. Senior Rowan Laufer, who played on the team two years ago, is back after competing in the Sporting Kansas City Development Academy last season.
“He’s a good player,” Sloan said. “I’ve played with him my whole life. He’s one of my best friends. I haven’t got to see him play very much recently, because he has been gone. But I only have great things to say about him.”
Free State plays host to Olathe South at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Free State’s girls tennis team will look to build off a strong season.
The Firebirds finished fifth in the team standings at last year’s 6A state tournament, which was their highest finish since 2002. Sophomore Keegan VanPelt returns after taking sixth in doubles at the state meet.
“My doubles partner was a senior so she knew what she was doing,” VanPelt said. “It was a lot of fun.”
Senior Gabby Gorman, a three-time state qualifier, and junior Anna Peard posted a 27-12 record as a double team last year and placed 11th at the state meet. Senior Kate Piper, meanwhile, has qualified for state in each of the last two seasons as a singles player.
“I just want to keep competing as hard as I can and try to place higher at state,” Gorman said.
Free State begins its season at 3 p.m. Thursday at the Olathe East quadrangular.
The Free State’s girls golf team has 14 players this year, which is the most sixth-year head coach Layne Meyer has ever had.
The Firebirds return four of their five varsity golfers from last year, including a pair of state qualifiers. Juniors Kennedy Birk and Kate Lawrence each tied for 71st in their first trip to the Class 6A state tournament.
“(Making it to state) boosted my motivation,” Birk said. “It made me feel like I was worth these tournaments. I can really do a lot for my team.”
This year, however, the Firebirds hope to be more competitive as a team with their depth. They placed eighth in their first tournament of the season, scoring 422 at the Jaguar Invitational Wednesday. Tyler Bane posted the best score, carding a 97 to finish in 26th.
“I don’t think their attitude or work ethic is going to be an issue,” Meyer said. “It’s golf, so consistency is the name of the game at any level for any program.”
Free State is back in action at 3 p.m. Wednesday at Prairie Highlands Golf Course.