Spring sports preview: Free State baseball brings back Graves brothers, deep bullpen

photo by: Chance Parker/Journal-World

Free State junior Kyle Graves is jubilant against BV West during the state tournament on Friday, May 26, 2023. Free State ended their season with a 2-1 loss.

Free State baseball returns several contributors from last year’s third-place state campaign, including three seniors – 2023 All-Area Player of the Year Kyle Graves (SS/P), Mason Lester (3B), and All-Area selection Tyler Jeffries (C/P) – as it looks to earn another trip to state.

Longtime Firebirds coach Mike Hill, when asked about the new 26-game schedule format, said the Firebirds will need to pull innings from elsewhere in the bullpen – including senior Blaine Larkin, junior Cayman Cook and sophomore Ben Graves – to complement Graves and Jeffries down the stretch.

“They have loads of potential,” Hill said. “We’re excited to see what they can do and there’s a bevy of other kids that we think have potential that are going to compete with one another here in the next couple of weeks to define their roles moving forward.”

The two Graves brothers, Kyle and Ben, played key roles for the Firebirds in last year’s state tournament run, each finishing the season atop the FSHS pitching stats and with All-Area honors. Experience returning alongside the fraternal duo includes junior Wesley Cupps (1B/P) and junior Ryan Weishaar (OF).

Hill is looking for his “key components” to last season’s success to capitalize on the playing time they received as underclassmen. However, the Firebirds skipper made it clear no job is safe and any vacancy will be filled.

“Not only are they going to have to repeat that kind of success, but you hope they build upon it,” Hill said. “We’ve got other players who’ve spent their time waiting in the links, so to speak, and now they’re going to get opportunities.”

FSHS opens its season hosting Sioux Falls-Lincoln (South Dakota) on Thursday.

Free State softball returns multiple senior leaders

Free State softball, after earning a state spot a year ago with its 10-13 campaign, looks to replicate the spark that allowed the 10-seeded Firebirds team to capture a regional title.

The biggest blow to FSHS coach Charley Bowen’s roster is the loss of All-Area Player of the Year Leah Mueller, who capped her Firebird career last season with a team-high seven home runs and 23 RBIs.

FSHS does retain another big name, however, with senior All-Area pitcher Elsa Carrillo set to lead Bowen’s squad in the circle. Last season, Carrillo (P/1B) broke out with 136 total strikeouts holding batters to a .218 batting average.

Free State junior Elsa Carrillo pitches against Olathe Northwest during the state tournament on Thursday, May 25, 2023.

The Firebirds infield welcomes back seniors Megan Kohl (P/1B), Bailey Smith (3B/OF), Myra Hamilton (1B) and Grace Rothwell (utility). Senior Aly Richardson, junior Daijah Preston and junior Delaney Bruhns are set to return to the outfield; senior Abry Hill (SS/C) is slated to be back behind the plate.

FSHS opens its season hosting Olathe Northwest on March 26.

Free State girls soccer eager to build on thrilling end to 2023

The Free State girls soccer team looks to improve on last year’s late-season rhythm that culminated with a two-win Firebirds program challenging top-seeded Garden City through three overtimes in the regional semifinal match.

This spring, the Firebirds will do without the senior trio that helped get FSHS to that big stage and will be leaning on new senior captains Shelby Roberts, Kate Foust and Regan Knapp to step into those roles.

“We have good balance of experience and youthful enthusiasm,” FSHS coach Joe Waldron said. “We have looked good in training as we continue to improve and work to better our 2023 performances across the board.”

photo by: Conner Becker/Journal-World

Free State junior defender Julia Bourquin (#5, Black) makes a play for the ball during Tuesday’s 5-0 loss to Olathe East on April 18, 2023, Free State High School.

Waldron also returns valuable varsity experience with junior midfielder Neylana Haque and junior defender Amelia Wiles set to return to the lineup.

FSHS opens its season at Olathe Northwest on March 21.

Free State tennis leaning on state experience

The Free State boys tennis team retains the bulk of its talent this spring, including three state qualifiers, as the Firebirds look to build high expectations based on their experience.

The senior duo of Jake Hedges and Felipe Reina-Salas is set to return in doubles after finishing with seventh-place honors at last year’s state championships in Topeka. Sophomore Drew Harrison, after an early exit at state a year ago, looks to build on his strong freshman campaign.

photo by: Conner Becker/Journal-World

Free State juniors Jake Hedges (left) and Felipe Reina-Salas (right) share a laugh during the state tennis championships in Topeka, Kansas, on Friday, May 12, 2023.

FSHS coach Randy Clark also has his eye on seniors Will Six, Steven Duan and Owen Thompson in his search for breakout players.

FSHS opens its season with a quad versus Olathe South, Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission East at the College Boulevard Activity Center on March 21.

After storybook 2023, Free State girls swimming has big shoes to fill

The bar remains high for the Free State girls swim and dive team after winning its fourth state title last year as part of a memorable send-off for longtime coach Annette McDonald. The Firebirds will now try to replicate that success under first-year head coach Janna Skinner.

Helping matters are four returning All-State swimmers – senior Molly Nuckolls, senior Liza Engelbrecht, junior Gayla Gao and junior Jocelyn Wilson – to lead the way.

photo by: Conner Becker/Journal-World

The Free State girls swim team cheers on their teammates during the final event of the 2023 State Swimming Championships on Saturday, May 20, 2023, at Hummer Sports Park-Capitol Federal Natatorium in Topeka, Kansas.

Engelbrecht (butterfly, backstroke) and Wilson (IM, freestyle) each grabbed gold medals at state in the 200-yard medley and 200-yard freestyle relays, respectively, last spring. Nuckolls (distance, freestyle) and Wilson were a part of last year’s first-place 400-yard freestyle team, as well.

FSHS opens its season at Emporia on March 21.

Ten state medalists return for Free State track

The Free State track and field team returns six state medalists on the boys side and four on the girls squad this spring and has big dreams of sending another long list of names to Wichita.

On the boys side, FSHS welcomes back seniors Ryan Whittlesey (5,000-meter), Jake Hedges (400-meter, 800-meter), Jake Loos (800-meter), Cam Stutler (200-meter) and Roman Jasso (400-meter) to FSHS’ relay corps.

photo by: Conner Becker/Journal-World

Free State freshman Jonah Frye keeps up the pace during the 2000-meter steeplechase on Friday at the Kansas Relays on April 14, 2023, at Rock Chalk Park.

The Firebirds return four girls state medalists – senior Gretchen Weinkauf (200-meter, 400-meter), junior Cayman Barnes (mile, 3,000-meter), junior Brylee Burns and junior Elle Cormaney.

Whittlesey, Hedges, Loos and junior Grant Lichauer notched a fifth-place state finish in the 4×800 relay last May.

FSHS opens its season hosting the Early Bird Invite on March 22.

Randall, Graf-Hannah leading Free State golf

The Free State boys golf team retains much of last year’s talent, including state qualifier and All-Area Player of the Year Jack Randall, on this year’s squad.

Junior Aiden Graff-Hannah, another All-Area selection, is also set to return to the Firebirds lineup along with sophomores Cash Nelson and Henry Thompson. After breaking onto the varsity roster as freshmen, Nelson and Thompson were named All-Area honorable mentions alongside their upperclassmen teammates.

Free State’s Jack Randall hits an approach shot during the Justin Siler Memorial Tournament at the Lawrence Country Club on Monday, May 2, 2022.

FSHS’ season tees off with the Shawnee Mission East Invitational Tournament on March 25 at Kansas City Country Club.


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