Nutter: Foundation set for more success next spring season
Snow and rain made for a crazy ride, but with summer break now upon us, the 2013 spring sports season is officially in the books. Bright spots weren’t hard to find for any Tonganoxie High team in the last few months, and with several athletes returning a year from now, there could be plenty more success in the not-too-distant future.
Here is a look at the season that was, as well as what lies in store for each squad.
The Chieftains made sure everyone knew last year was no fluke when they once again played their way to a Class 4-1A regional title — their second in as many years. Adverse weather and a tough early schedule led to a 3-7 start to the season, but THS responded with a six-game win streak to guarantee a winning record for the first time in program history.
The 9-8 year came to an end with a loss at Spring Hill in the state quarterfinals, but the Chieftains hung tough against the same Bronco team that defeated them by 10 goals earlier in the year.
Coach Justin Seever must replace a trio of seniors next year in forward Molly Welsh and defenders Christopher Tiner and Kelsi Briggs, but returns a plethora of underclassmen who saw significant minutes in 2013. That list includes a pair former All-State selections in incoming seniors Emily Soetaert, a forward, and Aly Bartholomew, a defender.
Senior leadership and an influx of young talent led to one of the best seasons in recent memory, as THS went 11-8 for its first winning season in six years under first-year coach Stephanie Wittman. The team went just 2-4 through its first six games, but won its next seven to go above .500 for good.
A late-season split against perennial Kaw Valley League power Basehor-Linwood guaranteed the Chieftains a winning record, and they wrapped up the regular season at 11-7. That success didn’t carry over to the postseason, though, as they were eliminated by Bonner Springs in the first round of regional play.
Wittman must fill voids left by senior infielders Jaycee Knipp and Shelby McDaniel, as well as outfielder and Kansas City Kansas Community College signee Savannah Bailey. However, nearly every other defensive starter now has at least two years of varsity experience. Starting pitchers Morgan Oroke, now a senior, and Sammi Bates, now a sophomore, will also be back in 2014.
A rough start combined with a midseason slump led to a 6-11 record in 2013, but on multiple occasions, THS proved capable of competing against talented opposition — particularly in league play. All six of the Chieftains’ wins came against league opponents, and they finished the year with a 6-4 KVL record.
The season was streaky from start to finish, as coach Mitch Loomis’ squad dropped its first four, then answered with a 3-1 stretch. The surge was halted but a 1-5 slump, including an 0-3 showing at the Butch Foster Memorial Classic, but the team won two of its last three to surpass its win total from a year ago. Close losses doomed THS this season, as it dropped six games by three runs or less.
The 2014 team will be without infielders Brett Shelton and Cody Saladin and reserves Gus Dent and Tyler Zinser, but there will be varsity experience at nearly every defensive position. Incoming seniors Travis Woods and Shane Levy headline the list of returners. Woods led the Chieftain pitching staff this season, while Levy, an outfielder, was arguably the top hitter in the league.
After losing three members of last year’s state runner-up squad, including individual champion Colby Yates, there was plenty of doubt surrounding the 2013 THS team. However, this year’s squad showed consistent improvement throughout the season and emerged as a state contender by year’s end.
As a team, the Chieftains lowered their score in four straight tournament from April 15 to May 7. They shot a 338 to finish third in the KVL tournament at Sunflower Hill Golf Course — the same course at which they carded a 360 in their first outing of the year. THS came five strokes short of qualifying for state in its regional tournament, but Drew Sandburg, Aaron Williams and Tyler Hall made the cut individually. Sandburg and Williams each finished in the top 20 and Hall shot a season-low 79 at state.
Coach Jared Jackson will have several spots to fill with the loss of Williams and Hall, as well as varsity regulars Conner Kietzmann and Zack Tallent. Sandburg and fellow incoming senior Austin Harris will look to lead the 2014 squad. Sandburg, the team’s most experienced golfer, will enter the year as a three-time state participant.
Track and field
For the third year in a row, Jenny Whitledge stole the show at the end of the season, winning a Class 4A state high jump title. The recent grad struggled early in the season, but was at her best when it mattered most, recording her two best heights of the year at regionals at state. Junior Haley Griffin also reached a new level at state, beating her personal best by nearly two inches en route to a third-place finish.
Whitledge, Griffin and sophomore Jackie Whitledge were the only girls state participants, but there were other bright spots throughout the spring. The 4x800-meter relay team of sophomores Kourtni Freemyer and Tressa Walker and freshmen Sophia Wetta and Nicole Zerrer won a Kaw Valley League title, and Freemyer and Wetta showed flashes of brilliance in the pole vault and 3,200-meter run, respectively. All will return with heightened expectations in 2014.
Junior Ben Johnson quickly emerged as the boys leader in his first high school track and field season. The four-event athlete won a regional title in the high jump and also qualified for state in the 100-meter hurdles. He also placed regularly in the triple jump and 300-meter hurdles.
Fellow junior Cody Snyder made a consistent impact in the shot put and discus, but came up short in his bid to qualify for state. Johnson and Snyder will headline a boys team that returns nearly 80 percent of its scoring next season.