Preps notebook: Free State’s Keegan VanPelt ready for final trip to state tennis meet

photo by: Chance Parker

Free State's Keegan VanPelt returns the ball Tuesday evening as they faced off against Lawrence High School at LHS on Sept. 29, 2020. The Firebirds won the city showdown by a score of 6-3.

Free State senior Keegan VanPelt will end a sensational high school tennis career this weekend at the Class 6A state tournament. The two-day event, which is slated to take place at the College Boulevard Activity Center, will begin Friday and end Saturday.

VanPelt, who is coming off a fourth-place finish as a singles player at regionals, is the lone local player to be competing in the final weekend of the season. It marks the fourth time in as many years that VanPelt will be playing in the state tournament.

And she still remembers the first trip to the state tourney as though it were yesterday.

“Time flies so fast,” VanPelt said. “I feel like I’m back to my freshman year playing doubles at state. I was so excited to play high school tennis, and now that it’s my very last tournament, it’s really weird to think about it.”

VanPelt finished fifth in Class 6A doubles as a freshman before moving to singles after her rookie season. She then secured fifth place at the state meet as a sophomore and finished fourth last year as a junior to end a 24-6 campaign.

The goal in VanPelt’s final trip to the state tourney is to continue that progression, though that might be easier said than done this time around. VanPelt enters the weekend dealing with an injury, which actually caused her to default her final two matches at regionals.

VanPelt sprained her left wrist, and still hadn’t returned to practice as of Tuesday when she did an interview with the Journal-World. VanPelt was supposed to find out later in the week if she was cleared to play, but she admitted to feeling better a few days after initially injuring the wrist.

The injury kept her from finishing higher than fourth in regionals, which could lead to a tougher draw in the state tournament. It was just the latest bump in the road for what has been a difficult year for VanPelt.

“This year has not been my year with injuries,” VanPelt said. “When this happened, I was super sad. I really wanted to win regionals because it is a cool thing to do and it is special.”

A back injury sidelined VanPelt for the entire month of February during her club season. She then wasn’t able to train at her academy for much of the offseason due to the pandemic. So VanPelt practiced with her younger sister, Kinley, on a daily basis instead.

VanPelt’s family background is the reason why she got into tennis in the first place. Her dad, Vance, was the 2010 Missouri Valley USPTA Coach of the Year and National Coach of the Year. Kinley VanPelt earned the USTA Heart of America 2019 Junior Player of the Year award.

Keegan VanPelt, meanwhile, didn’t start playing competitive tennis until about seven years ago. She tried a few different sports before falling in love with tennis during her first competitive match in Oklahoma.

“I’ve always liked tennis the best,” VanPelt said. “I just love getting to compete and fight for everything. My whole family is competitive, so I think just having that outlet is fun. It is just one-on-one, which is nice.”

VanPelt has since blossomed over the past four years of high school tennis, and she credits head coach Randy Clark for some of that growth. Clark has been directing the program all four years that VanPelt has been with the Firebirds.

“He works really hard,” VanPelt said. “He put a lot of time into it and he cares. Sometimes high school coaches don’t care that much about it. He definitely makes it his top priority. He just works really hard and he’s always on top of things.”

Clark, meanwhile, knows that VanPelt’s leadership and personality will be hard to replace when the team returns to the court without its three-time all-state selection next year. VanPelt is verbally committed to play collegiate tennis at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

“She’s a good person, good student and she’s a really good tennis player,” Clark said. “I’ve always thought of her as someone who set the standard of expectations for the team.”

The singles competition will begin at 2:30 p.m. Friday.

Firebirds win gymnastics meet

Free State’s gymnastics squad came away with another first-place finish following Monday’s meet at Emporia High School.

The Firebirds scored 102.400 points as a team to win the quadrangular at EHS. Newton came in second with just over 96 points, while Lawrence High placed third with just over 89 total points as a team.

Senior Talia Gay continues to have a dominant season, finishing first in all-around once again.

Gay swept her events by placing first in floor, beam, bar and vault en route to the individual title. Kenzie Vaughn claimed third in all-around, while Elli Vickers finished fourth in the all-around rankings. Avery Qualseth wasn’t far behind with an eighth-place finish in all-around.

The Lions were led by Beth Brandt, who was the lone player to finish inside the top 10 in all-around for her squad. Brandt came in sixth in the all-around rankings, which was boosted by a third-place finish in the vault competition.

Emporia gymnastics meet

Monday at EHS

Team scores: 1. Free State 102.400; 2. Newton 96.050; 3. Lawrence 89.250; 4. Emporia 85.100.

FSHS results (Top 10 finishes): Talia Gay-1st in all-around, 1st in floor, 1st in beam, 1st in bar, 1st in vault; Kenzie Vaughn-3rd in all-around, 3rd in floor, 4th in beam, 4th in bar, 8th in vault; Ellie Vickers-4th in all-around, 7th in floor, 5th in beam, 3rd in bar; Avery Qualseth-8th in all-around, 6th in beam; Chaney Finkeldei-7th in beam; Tori Crockett-8th in floor, 6th in bar.

LHS results (Top-10 finishes): Beth Brandt-6th in all-around, 5th in floor, 7th in beam, 10th in bar, 3rd in vault; Ivori Jones-5th in vault; Sophia Zogry-8th in vault.

Local soccer teams in action

Lawrence High’s boys soccer squad scored three goals in the second half to secure a 3-0 road win over Shawnee Mission Northwest on Tuesday.

It marked the third win in a row for the Lions, who improved to 7-6 on the year. Mason Anderson, Cale Scott and Alec Murphy (penalty kick) all scored for LHS in the team’s latest win. Alex Culbertson and Wheeler Battaglia-Davis were each credited with an assist.

Goalkeepers Grant Glasgow and Colyn Heck combined to pitch the shutout for Lawrence. LHS has posted back-to-back shutouts against Sunflower League foes. Lawrence will play host to Olathe East at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

Bishop Seabury’s soccer team earned a 5-1 home win over Ottawa on Tuesday. Harrison Hartzler recorded a hat trick for the Seahawks. Beck Oldridge and Evan McHenry each scored one goal for BSA, as well.

Bishop Seabury will travel to Pembroke Hill next Monday.

FSHS wrestling adds two assistants to staff

Free State’s wrestling team added a pair of members to its staff ahead of the 2020-21 campaign. Jonathan Inman and Brent Hoffman will both join the coaching staff as assistants to head coach Randy Streeter.

Inman won a state title in Missouri at Branson High School, and was a two-time All-American wrestler at Fort Hays State University in 2016 and 2017.

Hoffman, who is from Fridley, Minnesota, was a state champion for Totino-Grace High School. He will help with health and physical preparation of the FSHS wrestlers, as he specializes in strength and conditioning.

Streeter was officially hired to lead the Firebirds in July after nearly two decades as an assistant high school coach and head middle school coach throughout Lawrence.


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