Fall sports preview: Free State football feeding off last year’s spark, looking for cleaner play this fall
photo by: Emma Pravecek
With August in full swing, fall sports are soon to follow and the Journal-World has everything you can expect from Free State athletics.
Here’s the outlook for the FSHS squads:
The late-season turnaround the Free State football team engineered last year wasn’t enough to make a lengthy postseason run, but it may very well set the Firebirds up for success this fall.
Tasked with replacing most of his offensive production last season, fifth-year Free State head coach Kevin Stewart oversaw a program that gradually became a competitor and ended the regular season 4-0, including a gritty 28-26 victory at Lawrence High.
This season, most of the names responsible for last year’s late bounce-back have shown up to Stewart’s first official practice on Aug. 14. Included in that package are senior quarterback Wesley Edison, senior wideouts Devon Hamilton and Josiah Moss and senior lineman Hank Fuchs.
Also slated to have a larger role this season is senior Grant Lincoln. Lincoln, who received high praise from Stewart and Edison throughout the summer, will have to fill the shoes of running back Tay Ware, who graduated the second-best rusher with 154 carries for 772 yards last year behind Edison (884).
“At running back, (Lincoln) looks to lead the way with teammates Ryleigh Kingcade, Ryan Weishaar and sophomore Antario Lattimore Douglas providing competition and depth,” Stewart said.
Defensively, Free State’s in a solid spot with eight returning starters. Standout junior defensive tackle Hyrum Vaeono will be a key asset up front, returning with All-League honorable mention honors from last season at nose guard. Senior Tristan Tran and junior Blaine Larkin will pad the line.
The Firebirds will also benefit from four returning linebackers: senior Tyler Jeffries, senior Coby Ochsner, junior Parker Moore and junior Crow Bengoa. Jeffries returns the greatest number of tackles (37.5) from 2022, finishing fourth overall among last year’s defense.
With such returning depth, Stewart feels this year’s program is set up for far bigger things this fall – just so long as the team can reduce its mishaps. The FSHS head coach expects his team to be far more disciplined against the whistle this fall.
“Last year we were an inconsistent team and that proved to be the case in the playoffs,” Stewart said. “If we can improve each day over the summer and preseason we have an opportunity to be very successful.”
FSHS opens its schedule at Olathe West on Aug. 31.
After a fourth consecutive trip to state, the Free State volleyball team will try its hand at a fifth straight Class 6A tournament berth with a roster filled with unknowns.
For head coach Jayme Savage, this fall is an opportunity for her latest senior class to make the season their own. Since taking over the program as interim coach in 2018, Savage said every senior class has been unique.
“The cool thing about our seniors, and this group in particular, we spend a lot of time on culture and team connectivity,” Savage said. “With volleyball being one of the ultimate team sports, you’ve gotta have culture. It’s never the same, they have to be constantly working on it.”
photo by: Matt Tait/Journal-World
Senior pin hitter Fiona VanDyke, a college-level prospect in Savage’s opinion, will be a key senior leading the way. VanDyke earned her varsity letter as a freshman and took on an increased role with team-building this summer, the FSHS coach said.
In addition to VanDyke, the Firebirds will see two promising sophomores, middle hitter Ella Roberts and right-side hitter Annika Lintecum, jump into bigger roles this season.
FSHS opens its schedule vs. Topeka-Seaman at home on Aug. 31.
A deep returning senior class on the Free State soccer team has their eyes on far more than just a seat at the table this year in the Sunflower League.
FSHS coach Joe Waldron kept his boys busy this summer, as the Firebirds look to improve from a 9-9 finish a year ago. The offseason, which featured a St. Louis-area showcase alongside LHS, is seemingly a blueprint for success – but can Waldron and the club deliver?
The starting 11 returns six seniors – goalkeeper Carter Stephenson; defenders Utah Hester and Drew Rosenthal; and midfielders Blake Warner, Cam Stutler and Matthew Seelye.
photo by: Conner Becker/Journal-World
“We have some impact players in that senior class,” Waldron said at a July practice. “And the important thing for me is to try and provide an environment where they can shine and they can let their talents come through.”
Waldron also has his eye on last year’s JV team, which has strung together consecutive strong seasons. They’ll help a hungry Free State team navigate a rigorous Sunflower League schedule, which includes previous Class 6A state champion Shawnee-Mill Valley.
“It’s time for our younger players to step up and they get an opportunity to do that,” Waldron said.
FSHS opens its schedule at De Soto on Aug. 29.
The Free State cross-country team is slated for big strides this fall, with multiple veteran runners and a deep senior class that includes two Journal-World All-Area selections.
Seniors Blake Wohler and Jake Loos are expected to pave the way on the boys’ team, while senior Brylee Burns, another All-Area honoree, will front the girls’ squad. Burns’ top 10 finish at state helped FSHS notch a fifth-place finish at the Class 6A girls’ championships last fall.
But it doesn’t stop there for FSHS head coach Steve Heffernan’s program. The boys’ squad will welcome back four state qualifiers – senior Zach Hansen Terry, sophomore Jonah Frye, senior Cristian Wills, senior Ryan Whittlesey and senior Ethan Mason – to this year’s roster.
“We’ve got a group of motivated guys,” Heffernan said. “They came back and worked pretty darn well this summer. Now, I see them being more hungry.”
On the girls’ end, Heffernan expects each of his 2022 state qualifiers – junior Cayman Barnes, senior Isabelle Pro, junior Greta Barnett and junior Elle Cormaney – to compete at a very high level after a long, productive offseason.
“This group really stepped up the level of training they wanted to do,” Heffernan said. “That usually turns into exciting things down the road.”
FSHS begins its schedule at Olathe East on Aug. 31.
The Free State girls tennis team has several varsity spots open this season and will have competitive practices ahead as the school year kicks off.
Returning from last year’s fourth-place state team are senior Maya Lee, sophomore Cami Lee and junior Zoe Cachiguango-Latta. FSHS head coach Aaron Clark, returning for his sixth season, will have plenty of places to fill.
photo by: Matt Tait/Journal-World
Missing from the top of the roster will be previous Class 6A singles champion Kinley VanPelt, who’s nursing an injury and will likely miss the fall season, Clark said.
FSHS opens its schedule with a road quad at the College Boulevard Activity Center in Olathe on Aug. 31.
The Free State girls golf team will look to build on a promising 2022, even without two state-qualifying seniors on its roster this fall.
At the front of FSHS head coach Chuck Law’s starting six will be senior Elizabeth Engelbrecht, who shot a career-best 96 (27th overall) at the Class 6A regional tournament last season.
Junior Merrit Hale, who doubles as a goalkeeper on the Firebirds’ girls soccer team, also returns after carding a career-best 102 at last year’s LHS invite.
FSHS opens its schedule vs. LHS at Lawrence Country Club on Aug. 28.
The FireLions gymnastics program, under the direction of first-year coach Alexis Gonzales, will host its annual home showcase at Jayhawk Gymnastics on Oct. 14. The event will serve as senior night for both FSHS and LHS gymnasts.
Looking for Lawrence High? Here’s everything you need to know about the Lions this fall.