2 Free State senior pitchers highlight All-Sunflower League selections
photo by: File art
Two players in their final year at Free State High School were among the most talented pitchers in northeast Kansas during the 2021 campaign, and this year’s All-Sunflower League selections are proof of that.
Michael Uhler, who was the ace of the FSHS baseball team all spring, was named the league’s pitcher of the year, and Tatum Clopton, a star pitcher for FSHS softball, won Sunflower League player of the year honors for the second time in her illustrious career.
“It’s a huge honor,” Clopton said. “And the fact that there’s so much talent in the Sunflower League, it’s a really big deal to be able to represent as a player that year because there’s so much competition.”
This is the first pitcher of the year honor for Uhler, who was the lone Firebird in the All-Sunflower League baseball selections.
“It meant everything to me,” Uhler said. “It really proved that all my hard work paid off. Not only my hard work, but the team’s hard work also paid off. I feel more or less that this isn’t just an award for me, but also an award for my teammates as well because they were right alongside me throughout the entire journey.”
During a 13-10 campaign that ended in the Class 6A quarterfinals, Uhler appeared in 12 games and made 11 starts. He went 7-4 with a 1.21 ERA, and he had 54 strikeouts and 16 walks over 63 2/3 innings.
“It’s very impressive,” FSHS head coach Mike Hill said. “Credit to him and all the hard work he’s put in. It’s a very deep league with a lot of highly touted individuals. For him to receive this award, I think, is a strong testament to his work ethic and ability.”
For both Uhler and Clopton, these honors have been many years in the making.
Clopton, who will now turn her attention to pitching for Oklahoma State University, first stepped in the circle when she was 9 years old. Over the last few years, she’s delivered big performances on a nightly basis, but she wasn’t as certain when she first picked up the sport.
“The first several years of pitching were quite terrible, actually,” Clopton said. “It took a really long time to grow into the pitcher that I am. It took a lot of patience, and here I am.”
Clopton said she started to put it together when she was about 14, which coincided with the start of her high school career. Clopton didn’t pitch in the regular season as a freshman because of an injury, but she returned in the postseason to lead FSHS to its first state title in program history.
As a sophomore, Clopton went 16-1 with a 0.59 ERA in 17 outings while helping the Firebirds secure another state crown. She struck out 212 batters and walked 15 in 107 total innings of work. She was also named the Gatorade Kansas Player of the Year in 2019 and received the same award in 2020 for her athletic accomplishments with her club team.
In 2021, Free State wasn’t able to claim a third consecutive state crown. The Firebirds finished in fourth place in Class 6A with a 20-3 overall record and were undefeated in the Sunflower League.
“What’s crazy is I’ve not once thought about how we ended this season,” Clopton said. “For the most part, I just remember the fun times I had with the team and the friendships that I made through all that.”
Uhler, meanwhile, has been throwing for nearly his entire life. Even at a very early age, he had a knack for it, he said.
“My parents always like to tell a story about how when I was a little kid, I was throwing sippy cups as accurately as 50 feet away and hitting my sister in the head,” Uhler said.
“I’ve always loved to throw,” he added. “I’ve always been a pitcher my entire life. I’ve always loved the craft of it; it’s kind of an art form in itself.”
photo by: Courtesy photo
Uhler has dabbled in other activities along the way. He was on the FSHS basketball team for three years and participated in choir all four years.
As a sophomore, Uhler threw 8 1/3 innings on a team that made it all the way to the state championship game. He surrendered the walk-off hit in extras of the title game and had to sit on that memory for two years after the 2020 season was canceled.
But when the team got back to business in 2021, Uhler had a stellar senior season, and he saved his best stuff for when the team needed it the most.
He won four of his last six games, and four of his performances over that stretch were complete games, as well. Two of his most impressive pitching gems from this time were the regular-season finale against Lawrence High and the regional championship game against Wichita West.
“I started off a little bit slow, but I gained confidence the more that we played,” Uhler said. “We just kind of started clicking, and everything started working together well. And we just started winning a lot of games together.”
Uhler had a distinct approach on the mound all year. He wasn’t going to overwhelm hitters with his velocity, so he chose to baffle them with his craftiness instead. He used all his pitches (fastball, breaking ball and changeup) while moving around different spots in the zone. And he trusted his defense when the ball was put in play.
Uhler hopes to keep playing baseball at the next level; he doesn’t yet know for sure where he’ll be attending college.
Still, he will always have fond memories of his final year as a Firebird.
“I’ve definitely taken some time to just sit down and reflect and talk with my coaches about how things went,” Uhler said. “Just how good of a season that I really did truly have. Not only me, but as a team.”
Other local players honored
Several other players from Lawrence High and Free State were represented on the All-Sunflower League selections in both baseball and softball.
Three teammates joined Clopton on the All-Sunflower League first team: junior Jasmine Brixius (infield), senior Sara Roszak (infield) and sophomore Leah Mueller (outfield).
Roszak, a shortstop who was brilliant on offense and defense all year, is signed to play for the University of Kansas next spring. Brixius and Mueller will be among Free State’s most promising returners for 2022.
Lawrence sophomore Hailey Ramirez earned a first-team selection as an outfielder. She posted a .452 batting average this year and led the league with 25 stolen bases. She also blasted two homers.
On the baseball diamond, senior Carlos Vasquez was the lone Lion to end up on the first team. Vasquez, who was a stellar shortstop all spring, made the first team as a utility player. The Missouri State signee hit .417 and had three homers, 20 RBIs, 22 runs scored and 10 stolen bases during his final prep season.
On the softball second team, senior catcher Georgia Rea and freshman outfielder Kinsey Clopton made the list for Free State. LHS baseball had two second-team selections: junior outfielder Braden Hoffman and junior pitcher Ike Cobb.
Seniors Sydney Delfelder (LHS) and Robin Todd (FSHS) both ended their softball careers with honorable-mention selections.
2021 All-Sunflower League softball
Player of the year: Tatum Clopton, Free State
Coach of the year: Joanne Calvin, Gardner Edgerton
Catcher: Amy Miller, Olathe West; Allie Stipsits, Olathe North.
Infield: Ava Bredwell, Mill Valley; Jasmine Brixius, Free State; Sara Roszak, Free State; Jadyn Sheffield, Olathe South; Madison Walker.
Outfield: Emma McCall, Mill Valley; Leah Mueller, Free State; Hailey Ramirez, Lawrence; Lauren Roberts, Olathe North.
Designated player: Harley Pruetting, Gardner Edgerton.
Utility: Bre Severino, Olathe NW.
Pitcher: Tatum Clopton, Free State; Kelsey Hoekstra, SM North.
Local players on all-league second team:
Georgia Rea, catcher, Free State; Kinsey Clopton, outfield, Free State.
Local players on all-league honorable mention:
Sydney Delfelder, infield, Lawrence; Robin Todd, infield, Free State.
Final league standings:
1. Free State; 2. Gardner Edgerton; 3. Olathe South; 4. Olathe Northwest; 5. Olathe West; 6. Olathe North; 7. SM North; 8. SM Northwest; 9. Mill Valley; 10. Olathe East; 11. Lawrence; 12. SM South; 13. SM West; 14. SM East.
2021 All-Sunflower League baseball
Co-players of the year: Hayden Dyer, Gardner Edgerton; Grant Strong, Olathe East.
Pitcher of the year: Michael Uhler, Free State
Coach of the year: Corey Schrack, Gardner Edgerton
Catcher: Will Brant, SM East.
First base: Zach Brink, Olathe NW.
Second base: Ryan Borberg, SM Northwest.
Third base: Corbin Bassham, Olathe South.
Shortstop: Hayden Dyer, Gardner Edgerton.
Outfield: Josh Holmes, SM West; Landyn Lutrell, SM Northwest; Jake McClure, Gardner Edgerton; Grant Strong, Olathe East; Tye Wood, Gardner Edgerton.
Utility: Nyle Banks, Olathe North; Bryan Bartels, Olathe West; Carlos Vasquez, Lawrence.
Pitcher: Brady Beverman, Olathe South; Ty Blecha, SM Northwest; Andrew Evans, Olathe West; Mitch Mauk, Gardner Edgerton; Grant Strong, Olathe East; Michael Uhler, Free State.
Closer: Kasey Crawford, Olathe West.
Local players on all-league second team:
Braden Hoffman, outfield, Lawrence; Ike Cobb, pitcher, Lawrence.
Final league standings:
1. Gardner Edgerton; 2. Olathe West; 3. Olathe South; 4. Olathe East; 5. Free State; 6. Lawrence; 7. SM Northwest; 8. Olathe Northwest; 9. Mill Valley; 10. SM West; 11. SM East; 12. Olathe North; 13. SM North; 14. SM South.