North High spring sports catching fire in 2019 after lean years
A Wichita North girls soccer player sat in the training room, getting an ankle taped up. The trainer asked who the Class 6A high school team to beat in the Wichita area was. Wichita East, Derby, maybe even Campus or South could have a promising season.
The player didn’t have a definitive answer. Already a couple of weeks into the 2019 season and North sitting with only one loss, the trainer looked up and had an awakening that has started to creep across the minds of several of the school’s student-athletes.
“Why not North?” the trainer asked.
As of Tuesday afternoon, ahead of North’s massive City League clash at Bishop Carroll, North is the No. 1 seed in Class 6A Central/South Central. North’s beaten the likes of Northwest, Heights, Goddard and Kapaun Mt. Carmel.
Coach Kurt Wullschleger called the program’s 2-1 win over Kapaun one of the biggest wins of his six-year tenure as the boys and girls coach. It took place behind a phenomenal performance from arguably the top player in the Wichita area, senior Nayeli Gallo.
“This senior class, when they came in as freshmen, we knew we were going to have a shot,” he said. “We are winning against teams that have been tough for us to get over in the past, and we are winning a lot of different ways: discipline, toughness, quality, courage.
“And we haven’t come close to playing our best soccer yet.”
Although the North girls soccer team is turning heads across Kansas in 2019, the other two team spring sports programs are making waves in the Wichita area, too.
Through Tuesday, North’s soccer, baseball and softball teams are a combined 20-12. The energy is changing around the school.
“It’s a good time to be a Redskin,” Wullschleger said. “They are finally believing that it’s possible.”
North has struggled to compete in the City League in recent years. Last year, in the Eagle’s end-of-year report of the Wichita area’s most successful high school athletic programs, North finished 38th of 41 schools.
North had one individual state champion and won one team regional title. While North might not win a state title this season outside of girls soccer, which seems to be a real possibility, the ball has started to roll with catalyzing, program-changing wins.
The North softball team is 6-4 as of Tuesday afternoon, the No. 9 seed in Class 6A West, with sweeps of Wichita Southeast, South and West. Tuesday night, North had a chance to bring home a win over Kapaun.
Although North started shaky as Heights and Northwest earned sweeps, the team is on a four-game win streak behind outstanding performances from the likes of Allison and Grace Johnson, sisters who have been foundational pieces to the turnaround.
Coach Julie Huffmier has been with the program for five years. She said leaving someone else to clean things up wasn’t an option. This year, North will host a game on campus. Huffmier said five years ago, that wasn’t even a possibility.
“There is huge potential at North,” she said. “There is pride in the school, in the team. Even when we are losing, they were still proud to be Redskins. ‘Once a Redskin, always a Redskin.’ You live and die by that. I’m not going to walk away just because it’s tough for a few years, and neither are they.”
Changing the mindset has been the toughest challenge, Huffmier said. In the past, some of her teams took the field expecting to lose, she said. That is gone, and it’s not just gone in her program, but she can see it across the school this spring, she said.
Grace, a senior catcher, has seen the program ebb and flow. North finished with 11 wins in Huffmier’s second year. Last season: three. Now Huffmier said she can’t get the players to leave after practice.
“It’s just a different atmosphere around school,” Grace said. “It’s more uplifting. It’s a big thing for the school because everyone is used to being the losing North High. ... We have all been through the struggles of the losing records, so to be where we are now is pretty cool.”
The North baseball team is surging, too. After starting the season 2-7 with sweeps against Northwest and Heights, North has won three straight. North is 5-7 heading into a manageable second half of the season.
The turnaround started April 9 against West, a City League contender and No. 3 seed in Class 6A West. North won the second game 5-3 after getting throttled 16-4.
North led by two needing only seven outs to close the win ... and then “completely imploded,” coach Randy Griffitts said.
After the collapse, Griffitts gathered his team in the outfield and delivered a message that spurred it to a 14-run difference in a matter of hours.
“Who are you?” Griffitts told the team. “Is this the group you are? Or are we going to be something different?”
Following the West doubleheader, North made a statement Thursday against Kapaun, earning back-to-back-to-back wins for the first time in years and the first sweep over the Crusaders in even longer.
“You just have to find more confidence to learn what you are capable of,” senior pitcher Damon Siefer said.
Senior catcher Koyie Duft, who has signed to play at Missouri Western State on Tuesday, said there were days when it was hard to come to practice. Griffitts said the mindset has changed.
Not only the baseball players at North, but seemingly all of the student-athletes are sick of losing.
“We’re in the best spot we have been all year,” Duft said. “Honest to God, this is the best baseball I have seen us play at North.”
That energy is becoming contagious, Siefer said. More students are approaching to athletes to wish them luck and tell them they will be at the games in support.
Spring sports participation at North has skyrocketed, according to North athletic director Mike Church. There are more than 260 students competing across the eight spring sports, Church posted to Twitter.
Griffitts, a North alumnus, said in the past the spring could be seen as a drag to student-athletes who have trudged through unsuccessful fall and winter athletic seasons.
But that is slowly changing.
“The kids, once they start to experience success, they crave it,” Griffitts said. “They are craving success. They are buying in and starting to believe. And you’re starting to see that across the board.”