Ark City’s O’Toole named Greater Wichita Sports Commission’s Male Athlete of the Year
Hunter O'Toole stands in a grand corridor in downtown Wichita, surrounded by a blanket of TV cameras and reporters, seemingly completely out of his element.
His hands stick mostly to his pockets, and he refuses to wipe away his nervous grin. He clings to one word that keeps coming to mind: "Surreal."
O'Toole was chosen as the Greater Wichita Sports Commission's Barry Sanders Male Athlete of the Year on Thursday after leading Arkansas City to a third-place finish in basketball and the Bulldogs' second baseball state championship.
"The vibe around Ark City, it's special," O'Toole said. "It's bringing the community together, and that's one thing that I really love."
When he got to the podium at the Hyatt Regency Wichita to give his acceptance speech, the first thing he said was a joke about how thankful he was that Ark City was considered in the "greater" part of Wichita. About an hour south of the city, the Bulldogs are often forgotten.
Ark City is a wrestling town with 21 state championships that has had trouble consistently replicating that success in any other sport. Because the town is small and the teams haven't had much success, most athletes play whichever sport is in season, and O'Toole was no exception.
"We had 21 dudes on our baseball team this year for JV and varsity," O'Toole said. "Derby cut 34 dudes."
Still, it was hard for the community to rally behind teams that weren't winning.
O'Toole said his freshman year, the football, basketball and baseball teams won a combined six games. It wasn't uncommon to have 50 people in the gym for a Friday night varsity hoops game, no matter the opponent. And that, at least to some degree, kept the players down.
O'Toole said suffering through so many losing seasons made the turnaround even better.
"Being a three-sport athlete from Ark City, I never was really labeled as an athlete," he said. "I never was the strongest, never was the fastest, couldn't jump the highest."
Things are different now in Arkansas City. At the Bulldogs' senior night game against eventual AVCTL II champion Eisenhower, O'Toole said there wasn't an open seat.
"There were people standing against the walls," he said. "It's just crazy. Ark City is such a supportive town, but you gotta win to be supported."
Ark City won that game 71-64 to sweep the Tigers for the first time in school history. Those were Eisenhower's only regular-season losses. Coach CJ Jennings called the senior night win a "landmark."
The Bulldogs went on to win their sub-state tournament, beating Wellington and Field Kindley, and they beat Wamego in the Class 4A-Division I quarterfinals before running into McPherson and losing 54-44. Ark City wrapped up the season with a 57-55 win against Andover Central in the third-place game.
They finished the season 19-6. In the decade before this season, Ark City combined for a 53-155 record, including two one-win seasons.
Baseball wasn't much better. From 2013-16, Ark City went 14-45 and went 12 years without a state tournament appearance until this year.
O'Toole was part of both turnarounds. On the court, he averaged six points a game and was a near constant for the Bulldogs.
And on the diamond, he was nails. O'Toole was chosen 4A-Division I Pitcher of the Year. He had a 0.41 ERA with a 6-1 record. In nine appearances, he had five shutouts with a no-hitter and a combined perfect game. He threw 51 1/3 innings, allowed three earned runs and faced 200 batters.
Before Ark City started its regional title game against Wellington, coach and athletic director Aaron Bucher said, "That's my guy. We've been riding with him for years."
The Bulldogs finally had their payoff in 2018.
In the Eagle's rankings of most successful high school athletic programs in the Wichita area from the 2017-18 season, Arkansas City went from No. 20 to 5. It was the largest rise among any of the 41 schools listed.
So there he was, Hunter O'Toole, standing in front of hundreds of people from McPherson to Ark City. Thursday night was a shining moment for O'Toole's hometown, and he made sure he reflected that in his words.
"I'd like to thank my team," he said. "We all know in a team sport, team atmosphere, we're nothing without our teammates. All these accolades that I have received, they are nothing without my team."
O'Toole will go home for the summer before heading to Cowley Junior College to continue his baseball career as a pitcher. He will keep mowing lawns for extra money.
The memories from the 2017-18 school year won't soon leave Ark City. O'Toole has become a mini-celebrity there. People sometimes roll their windows down when they see him mowing.
"Let's go, Hunter," They yell.
O'Toole said the key to passing on what he and his teammates started will be to continue to invest in the youth teams - to send 8-year-olds across the country, gain experience and gain chemistry. He said that's why this year has been so special, because of the years spent trying to get there with the same group of friends.
The Greater Wichita Sports Commission has announced male and female athletes of the year for 21 years. Not only was O'Toole the first winner from Ark City, he was the first nominated. And with that, he fell back on the one word that always seemed to come to mind:
Lynette Woodard High School Female Athlete of the Year: Taylor Robertson - McPherson, basketball
High School Girls Coach of the Year: Chris Strathman - McPherson, basketball
High School Boys Coach of the Year: Dusty Trail - Bishop Carroll, football
Junior College Female Athlete of the Year: Kenzie Young - Butler Community College, softball
Junior College Male Athlete of the Year: Jake Hawker - Cowley College, soccer
College Female Athlete of the Year: Chelsea Baker - Friends University, track and field
College Male Athlete of the Year: Noel Torres - Newman University, wrestling
Professional Athlete of the Year: Ralph Cuddemi - Wichita Thunder
Gene Stephenson Coach of the Year: Chris Lamb - Wichita State University, volleyball
Johnny Bench Award (Collegiate Catcher of the Year): Joey Bart - Georgia Tech