Year in Review: FSHS softball defends state crown to highlight another strong season
photo by: Carter Gaskins
For the second year in a row, Free State’s lone state title came on one of the final days of the high school sports season.
The Firebirds captured their only team crown this year in the Class 6A state softball tournament, marking the second season in a row that Lee Ice’s squad has won the title. But there were plenty of significant moments from the 2018-19 school year for Free State’s teams and athletes.
Amanda Faunce got a close view of all these accomplishments during her first year as Free State’s athletic director. Faunce talked about some of the highlights from the latest season for the Firebirds.
Defending state crown
Last spring, Free State’s softball played the underdog role and won the whole state tournament as the eighth seed. It marked the team’s first state title in program history.
With many of those talented players coming back this spring, the Firebirds were practically expected to play on the final day. They stormed through the regular season, in which their lone setback was a doubleheader midway through the year.
Free State sophomore Tatum Clopton pitched five shutouts in as many games during the postseason. Free State (23-2) capped things off with a 1-0 win in the state championship game, handing Washburn Rural its first loss of the season. FSHS even had to deal with a weather delay in the middle of the title game, which pushed the celebration back one day.
“I’m probably the only AD in Kansas that was happy for a rain delay, so that I could be there on Saturday since I had been at baseball,” Faunce said. “I’m just extremely happy for them. I’m happy for the girls, the coaching staff and just the community as a whole.”
The Firebirds will be losing seniors Lauryn Jones, Emma Stanwix, Chloe Taylor, Taylor Burks, Karsen Jacobson, Annie Roszak and Morgan Leslie from this year’s team. But they return plenty of firepower with Clopton, Georgia Rea, Sara Roszak and Macy Miles among those key players coming back.
Free State said goodbye to the only head football coach it has ever known, but not before posting another double-digit win season.
In Bob Lisher’s final year at the helm, the Firebirds went 10-1 and notched their seventh consecutive trip to the 6A quarterfinals. Free State was ultimately eliminated by Manhattan at home, though it didn’t take away from a phenomenal season.
Running back Jax Dineen and receiver Keenan Garber helped pile up the points in their final year with the team. They both are continuing their football careers at Kansas State University. Jalen Nash fueled a FSHS defense that began the year with three consecutive shutouts.
Kevin Stewart, who was an assistant for Blue Valley North, has since been named the new head football coach.
“Bob has certainly established a tradition at Free State,” Faunce said. “I look forward to trying to honor the work he has done and help support Kevin as he takes over. Just to continue that tradition and legacy that Bob has established.”
In addition, multiple individual underclassmen had a strong postseason in their respective sport. Sophomore Keegan VanPelt finished fifth in the singles bracket to lead Free State’s girls tennis team to a fourth-place finish at the 6A state tournament.
Sophomore Talia Gay was first in the all-around rankings as well as the bars competition, while FSHS took fifth at the state gymnastics meet. Ben Shryock posted the highest finish by a freshman in school history when he registered fourth at the state cross-country meet to lead the boys team to a runner-up finish.
Despite losing all but one player from a squad that went to the state title game, Free State’s boys basketball team managed to get back to the state tournament.
The Firebirds (15-7) eventually lost to top-seeded Washburn Rural in the opening round of the 6A state tournament, but that didn’t take away from an impressive year. They recorded their third consecutive trip to the state tournament.
But that has become the expectation since Sam Stroh took over the program before the 2015-16 season. With key players such as DK Middleton, Mozae Downing, Ethan Lincon and Andrew Piper back, Free State has similar aspirations heading into this upcoming season.
“I think coach Stroh is a phenomenal coach,” Faunce said. “Whether it is the X’s and O’s of the game or watching when he calls a timeout or doesn’t call a timeout, I really appreciate the knowledge that Sam has. He also does a great job of getting the boys to be on the same page as far as the team bonding and having the camaraderie.”
In the winter sports season, Free State also had three individuals win state titles. Reilley Moore won the 100 butterfly and Benjamin Vorthmann won the 100 free in the 6A state boys swim meet. Elijah Jacobs won the 145-pound weight class in the state wrestling tournament.
Rest of spring sports
Free State’s baseball program was considered the top team in Class 6A for much of the year before eventually suffering a walk-off loss in the state championship game.
FSHS (21-4) won its ninth league title in program history and first since 2013. The Firebirds won 14 games in a row at one point in the season. Ethan Bradford was the top pitcher in Class 6A, anchoring a rotation that stymied opposing lineups all spring.
Auna Childress, a junior, finished as a runner-up in the 6A girls triple jump. It marked the second year in a row that she finished with a silver medal in the event. She also posted a school-record leap of 40-foot-9 to win the triple jump competition at the Kansas Relays.
Sawyer Nickel netted seventh in the 6A state boys tennis tournament, lifting his team to a sixth-place finish. Junior Andrew Park placed seventh in the state boys golf tournament. Payton Krug and Kasey Dunn both claimed two medals at the state girls swim meet.
“As far as the level of competition, no I wasn’t surprised,” Faunce said. “I know how competitive Free State has been in the past. From a personal standpoint, having the facilities we have is a dream come true as an athletic director.”