Spring Sports Preview: Free State baseball eyeing a return to state
photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World Photo
Spring sports are back in full swing at Free State High School, with all programs opening practices and competitions this week.
Here’s the outlook for the Firebirds:
A first-round loss at last year’s state tournament will be the Free State baseball team’s motivation to replace the talent of nine key players from a season ago.
Senior turnover hurts Free State coach Mike Hill the most, but the 26th-year coach says the expectations of every senior class remain the same. Finishing 15-8 last spring, the Firebirds lost nine seniors, including Class 6A Pitcher of the Year Maddox Burkitt.
The pitching staff will be led by senior Tyler Vigna and junior Kyle Graves will be leading the Firebirds on the mound this year. Free State can also turn to senior Jackson Waggoner or junior Tyler Jefferies, who each gained valuable experience on the varsity mound last year.
Senior Jase Grady and junior designated hitter Mason Lester return to the batting order, along with sophomore Charlie Peters and freshman Ben Graves vying for time in the infield.
Free State meets Sioux Falls Bishop O’Gorman in exhibition play on Thursday and Sioux Falls Roosevelt on Friday. The Firebirds’ home opener is slated for April 4 vs. Olathe North.
After finishing right at .500 last year, the Free State softball team is ready to take the next step this spring. Second-year coach Charley Bowen returns three seniors to lead the charge, each having committed to the collegiate level.
Free State’s senior depth – Alena Velilla (Benedictine College), Leah Mueller (UMKC), and Isabella Smith (St. Mary’s) – will be complemented by returning junior shortstop Abry Hill and junior pitcher Grace Rothwell.
“I see the pieces there and I’m excited, but it’s how they put it together as a team,” Bowen said. “If they can put it together as a team, I think we’ll be even better than I thought coming in.”
Free State opens its season on April 4 at Olathe South.
Track and Field
Riding high after picking up a Class 6A boys regional championship title and girls regional runner-up honors last season, the Free State track and field team is shaping up for another successful spring.
Tenth-year Free State coach Jordan Rose returns one of her largest rosters yet, welcoming back 215 athletes to the program. The Firebirds’ boys and girls teams each placed eighth at state last year.
“We’re looking forward to meeting some new talented kids, as well as seeing where our veteran athletes can take us,” Rose said.
Returning senior leaders include Jake Loos (4×800) and Michael Romito (400 mtr, 4×400). Juniors Jake Hedges (4×800), Roman Jasso (4×400), and Elijah Sabatini (4×400) are all expected to pull for the boys’ squad, as well.
On the girls side, Free State returns three key seniors – Kenzie Vaughn (pole vault), Reese Hulcher (high jump), and Aubrey Duncan (javelin) – to pave the way back to state.
Free State opens the season with a home meet on Friday.
A young Free State girls soccer team will lean on two senior captains, Maddie Powell and Ella McCleary, this season. Finishing just 2-14 last year, second-year Firebirds coach Joe Waldron hopes his group can carve out a spot in a competitive Sunflower League.
Alongside Powell and McCleary, junior midfielder Shelby Roberts earned the captain rank this season and is expected to help bring up the younger core of talent. Freshmen Cara Jefferies and Riley Prier add the level of “strength and energy,” the squad needs, according to Waldron.
“This is a committed and hard-working group that enjoys working together and for one another,” Waldron said. “I’m proud to be coaching this fun and enthusiastic team and look forward to this journey and growing together as a team.”
Free State opens the season on Thursday, hosting Olathe Northwest at 7 p.m.
The Free State boys golf team seeks to build off last year’s state-qualifying group, setting its sights on a sixth consecutive tournament run.
Eighth-year Free State coach Chuck Law returns key senior Jackson Lintecum to his varsity card, along with junior Jack Randall and sophomores Aiden Graff-Hannah and Adam Hemker.
Law also welcomes a record seven freshmen to the program this season. Mixing his core of experienced Firebirds with incoming talent, Law feels the recipe for a deep squad is there.
“Our goals are: finish in the top half of the Sunflower League, qualify for state, and get a second day at state as a team,” Law said.
Free State will hit the links for the Shawnee Mission East Invitational on March 27 at Kansas City Country Club.
Girls Swim and Dive
The Free State girls swim and dive team will look to defend last year’s state title this spring with a large senior class and plenty of returning talent in the mix.
Firebirds coach Annette McDonald, now in her 16th season, returns seven total seniors to this year’s roster, including state champion Bradie Ward, program record-holder Halle McCullough, Sunflower League champion Lolly Hindman and first team all-state honoree Samantha Packard.
“We’re looking forward to an exciting and competitive season,” McDonald said. “We have great leaders in the pool and in the classroom.”
In addition to Free State’s seniors, juniors Elizabeth Engelbrecht, Molly Nuckolls, and JoJo Warrior are all expected to contribute. Engelbrecht joined McCullough and Packard on last year’s 200-medley relay team.
Free State opens its season at the Emporia Tournament on Thursday.
Building on a second-place Sunflower League finish last year, the Free State boys tennis team is seeking the state tournament this season. Four Firebirds qualified for state last year, including returning senior Jake Hedges.
Hedges’ doubles partner and fellow senior, George Thornton, underwent knee surgery this winter and will miss the spring season. In Thornton’s place, Hedges will be paired with junior Felipe Reina Salas, who returns after a strong singles campaign last year.
Sixth-year Free State coach Aaron Clark acknowledges there’s a lot of uncertainty with this year’s pairings.
“We have a solid four with freshman Drew Harrison joining the team, but there is plenty of room for players to advance and move up into a top-six spot,” Clark said. “Results and competition will largely determine what our final top six looks like by early May, but a mixture of experience and newness is the theme this year.”
Free State opens the season with Thursday’s quad tournament in Olathe at the CBAC.