Back and Loving It: Free State ace Tatum Clopton enjoys first full season with Firebirds

photo by: Carter Gaskins

Free State Tatum Clopton (16) winds up a pitch in a game against Gardner-Edgerton on Tuesday, April 23, 2019 at Free State High School.

Despite dominating during Free State’s postseason run to a Class 6A state title a season ago, there was still something missing from Free State sophomore Tatum Clopton’s high school softball career.

Specifically, regular season wins.

One year after shoulder issues limited Free State’s standout pitcher to designated hitter status throughout the 2018 regular season, Clopton was back on the field with the ball in her flamethrower of a right hand and loving every second of it.

“Last year was really difficult for me because I love pitching,” said Clopton before a recent Free State practice. “It’s not only my hobby but also my career. And to not be able to do that and just have to hit was really frustrating for me.”

This year, the only softball players facing frustration are those in the Sunflower League who have had to see a lot more of the Oklahoma State commitment than they did a season ago.

Entering this year’s postseason — No. 2 seed Free State opens regional play at 4:30 p.m. Thursday against Lawrence High at FSHS — Clopton is fresh off of a stellar regular season in which she led the Sunflower League with an 11-0 record and also was tops in the league with 0.84 earned-run average.

Only one other pitcher in the SFL (Olathe North’s Jayme Dean) had an ERA below 2.0 and even that was a full point higher than the Free State ace.

Clopton also led the league with 140 strikeouts, doubling the total of Olathe South’s Bailey Ballard in third place on the league’s strikeout list, and helped pace the Firebirds to a league title and an 18-2 overall record. All of that without the benefit of being an unknown freshman who the league’s upperclassmen had yet to face.

Clopton entered 2019 knowing she would draw extra attention from every team, coach, scout and batter she faced this season. Rather than letting the weight of such a reality get to her, she found a way to thrive.

“I think it’s made things a lot more fun,” she said. “But I’ve also had to be smarter about when I’m getting workouts in and taking care of my shoulder to make sure I don’t repeat last year.”

Although the damage to her shoulder was limited to soreness and strains in her rotator cuff and labrum, Clopton said she has come a long way in the past year in terms of treatment off the field and intelligence on it.

Ice, heat and extra stretching are now regular parts of her routine.

“And probably will be for as long as I’m playing,” she said.

Using her mind as much as her muscle to get batters out also has become a key part of her repertoire.

“Being smarter about pitches and sequences and knowing when to throw certain pitches at what point in the count and to what hitters,” she explained. “Basically, adjusting quicker because if you make two mistakes, one of them’s going to go over the fence. That’s just how it works in softball.”

With the 2019 postseason on deck, all of the memories of last season’s magical run have come flooding back for Clopton and her teammates. Sure, being out there to dominate the regular season the way she dominated do-or-die time a year ago was fun. But these next couple of weeks are the reason the Firebirds play.

“We know what state is and we know how to get back there and what we need to do to win it,” explained Clopton, noting that “the energy” on the field and in the dugout during last year’s state title run have stuck with her.

“I think defending it’s actually harder,” she added. “When you’re chasing it, you don’t really have a target on your back. We were the underdogs the whole time. We weren’t expected to be there and yet there we were. This year people expect so much from us that we have to constantly keep getting better because it’s not just going to happen again.”


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