Four area fall sports teams begin journey for second straight state title
As the high school fall sports season starts up this week, each team has set out some goals — both short-term and long-term.
Four area teams achieved their ultimate goal last fall by winning a state title, and they’re ready to begin their respective journeys as they attempt to repeat as state champions. Here’s an outlook of the upcoming seasons for the St. James girls cross country, SJA volleyball, SJA girls tennis and Shawnee Mission North girls cross country teams.
SM North girls cross country
The Shawnee Mission North girls cross country team finally felt the joy of standing at the top of the awards podium at the state meet last season after finishing third in 2015 and second in 2016.
Now that the Indians have experienced that, head coach Aaron Davidson wants them to remember that feeling, but to also keep their focus forward.
“It was finally good to win a state championship, but the thing we’ve really had to work on is looking ahead instead of looking behind. It was hard to do during track because the focus was on track,” Davidson said. “The summer was good to kind of get the girls that we have coming back together to kind of start the mission all over again. We’re looking ahead instead of behind now. We’ve got good leadership coming back. It’s just getting them to realize that we’ve been there and we know what it’s like and we know what it takes to do it again.”
The Indians return four of their top seven runners from the 6A state championship squad between Katie Kasunic, Keagan Stiers, Caroline Colburn and Abby Onnen.
“Those four girls know what it takes to compete in the postseason. We’ve got a few — I’ll say two — freshmen girls that are coming in that can contribute (on the varsity level) right away,” Davidson said. “And we’ve got Christianna Kasunic. She’s also right there. We’ve got a good mix. We might not show it right away, but I think we’ll be ready at the end of the season to be a strong contender.”
While Davidson was happy to see the girls finish atop the team standings at state last fall, the SM North boys had a tough pill to swallow after placing fourth.
The SM North boys also have a wealth of varsity experience returning with Logan Jiskra, Asher Molina, Blake Taylor, Austin O’Dwyer, Sebastian Garcia and Harden Boldt all having ran at the state meet last year.
“Our boys have had a little bit of an up and down summer just with some kids being banged up. I’ve been really pleased with some of the kids that we’re looking at to make that next jump and realizing that last year they were close, but fourth is one place away from a trophy,” Davidson said. “If we want to contend for a trophy, we’ve got some spots to fill and have an understanding that it’s on those guys now. It’s on them and they’re not sitting back and watching. They have to go out and do it themselves now.
“We have some soccer players that have committed full time to cross country and I think that’s going to make a difference. Like with the girls, the guys might not show it right away. But I think when it comes down to it, I think we’re going to be in a good place at the end of the season.”
The Indians will open their season with the Greg Wilson Classic on Sept. 1 at Johnson County Community College, but their schedule is a little bit different than years past.
“We’re taking two weeks off this year instead of one. We’re going to Baldwin earlier instead of later,” Davidson said. “I’m excited. We’ve got a few key meets like the Olathe Twilight Meet. That’s going to be a big meet for us because it’s going to be competitive. It will be a good early season gauge.”
St. James girls cross country
Just like with the SM North girls cross country team, the St. James girls cross country team finished as the state runner-up in 2016 before winning it all in 2017.
The Thunder will also return four of their top seven runners in Sarah Murrow, Katie Moore, Hannah Robinson and Mary O’Connor. The four St. James distance runners were mainstays on the varsity squad as underclassmen, and head coach Rob Harber has been pleased with the progress they’ve shown over the past year.
“They’re really stepping up,” head coach Rob Harber said. “They’re taking on those leadership roles that they really haven’t had to take on until now. They’re doing a great job with it.”
While the St. James girls are excited to get back on the course to begin their journey for another 5A state crown, the primary goal remains the same for the St. James boys — to qualify for state as a team for the first time in school history. Jack Moore and John Matulis will both be back for the Thunder this fall after qualifying for state individually in 2017.
“It’s pretty much the same for them (with having the goal of making it to state). I think their goals are a little higher now,” Harber said. “They believe that they are going to qualify for state this year. They are thinking more about how exactly they are going to finish their race and executing that.”
Moore and Matulis are two of the seniors who will be leading a St. James program that has plenty of depth this fall. Harber enjoys the fact that the runners elect the captains on the team rather than himself and his coaching staff. He’s excited to see the leadership from Moore, Matulis and the other seniors. There are 13 captains for the St. James squad for a team of 115 runners.
“We have a lot of seniors this year compared to last year. They’ve been doing a lot during the summer,” Harber said. “They designed our team t-shirts during the summer. They organized the social schedule with the things we do outside of practice.”
Nearly half of the St. James team made the Thunder’s annual trip to Colorado over the summer. The trip has become one of Harber’s favorite events of the summer.
“We had 56 on the trip. Forty-one submitted Pike’s Peak,” Harber said. “We also do things like the Manitou Incline and just lots of fun things. Those trips are pretty fun.”
The Thunder will kick off their season in a quad meet against Free State, Olathe East and Raytown on Aug. 29 at JCCC.
“We always enjoy that meet very much because it’s scored in classes. The juniors and seniors and freshmen and sophomores race together for both genders, but then the scoring is broken out,” Harber said. “Our athletes really like that. It’s a fun meet because it’s not the normal 5K varsity, JV, C-team. It just makes it more fun to enjoy.”
St. James volleyball
After winning its eighth state championship in program history and making its 11th straight state title match appearance, an experienced St. James volleyball team will look to keep rolling with another difficult schedule this fall.
The Thunder will have to replace two- year captain Allison Coens and Megan Luby, but head coach Nancy Dorsey believes that there are plenty of capable leaders on her roster. Defensive specialists Jackie Storm and Addi Weybrew and libero Ellie Bolton both return from a stingy back row last season. Setter Morgan Miller will also be back along with Audrey Klemp, Ellie Wheeler, Olivia Lovett, Anna Feldkamp and Lauren Kropf on the front row. Dorsey also expects Marea Workman and Maureen Reilly to log some varsity minutes.
“I think the natural leader will start to emerge as we start to play a little bit. I think we relied on Allison to do a lot for us last year and obviously she did a great job of doing that,” Dorsey said. “I think lead-by-committee is a good way to put it. There is just a lot of really good volleyball players on this team.
“They are all pretty solid. There is not just an individual standout. They’re all really good volleyball players. We’re really excited about what we have and what they can do together. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we’re ready to take on the challenge.”
The Thunder went through tryouts from Aug. 13-15, but none of the returning varsity players went through the motions, according to Dorsey. The St. James head coach has been encouraged by her team’s energy in practice, especially with the Thunder’s season opener quickly approaching on Saturday with the Spectrum Sports Volleyball Slam against a veteran De Soto squad.
“There is definitely a better maturity about them. For some of them, this is their third year on varsity,” Dorsey said. “So they have experience and they know the drill at this point. It’s not their first rodeo so to speak in our gym and with what we expect with our expectations and our effort, energy and attitude. With so many people returning, you don’t really have to spend a lot of time revisiting that. They just come in ready to go, so that’s been nice.”
While the Volleyball Slam will be a new environment for De Soto, Dorsey doesn’t have a doubt that the Wildcats will bring their ‘A’ game against the Thunder. De Soto coach Lindsay Hothan had some similar sentiments to that of Dorsey of how she felt the Wildcats’ tryouts and first few days of practice went.
“The girls showed up to tryouts with all kinds of energy,” Hothan said. “I feel like everything we’ve done up to this point has translated into positive energy. They’ve had positive attitudes and a good team mindset during practice, so it’s feeling really good to be here.”
Hothan’s squad will feature an experienced cast of seniors, three of which stand well over 6 feet in Ally Barnhart, Faith Hammontree and Kaitlyn Bell.
“It’s nice to have some height,” Hothan said. “You don’t always get that, so that’s always good.”
De Soto also returns libero Maya Bascom, setters Haley Cuba and Kennedy Higgins, outside hitter Loren Hinkle and defensive specialist Kendall Schmitt. Hothan also noted that senior Emma Chacey, junior Taylor Ellis and sophomore Brooke Stonestreet have looked strong during the preseason. The De Soto coach is excited about how the Wildcats will perform against the defending state champs.
“We’re incredibly excited for the opportunity to do that,” Hothan said. “It’s going to be a great competitive atmosphere and it’s going to be a wonderful learning opportunity for us to just be put to the test at the very beginning and go out there and play our hearts out.”
First serve between the Wildcats and Thunder is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. to wrap up the Volleyball Slam at St. James. Other matches in the Volleyball Slam include St. Michael the Archangel against Olathe East at 8 a.m., Shawnee Mission East against Blue Valley Northwest at 9:30 a.m., Washburn Rural against Blue Valley at 11 a.m., Lee’s Summit West against Blue Valley West at 12:30 p.m., Free State against Blue Valley North at 2 p.m., St. Thomas Aquinas against Lansing at 3:30 p.m. and St. Teresa’s against Olathe Northwest at 5 p.m.
St. James girls tennis
The St. James girls tennis team won its first state title in program history last fall with a senior-laden squad.
After all four of the Thunder’s entries placed at state, only Tara Devine will return from the St. James team that claimed the 5A crown.
A new-look Thunder squad was the first Shawnee area team to begin competition this fall. St. James will start its season at 3:30 today with the Catholic quad against St. Thomas Aquinas, Bishop Miege and Hayden at Harmon Park. A full recap of the quad and a full season preview will be posted following the quad.