Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk: Sarah (Workman) Clopton
The saying goes, “when one door closes, another opens up,” and in the case of former Kansas softball pitcher Sarah (Workman) Clopton that is exactly what happened. During the 1998 preseason, Clopton was injured and chose to redshirt during the entire regular season. Not even in her wildest dreams could she have imagined that she would fall in love and get married to someone who personally witnessed her journey back to the pitching circle.
Sarah Clopton came to Kansas in 1996 from Orlando, Florida, where she began playing softball when she was 7 years old in an instructional league. She first played little league at age 8 where she gained experience at the catcher and shortstop positions. It was not until the age of 9 that she began pitching. From age 14 to 18 she played for the Clearwater Bombers during the summer.
It was during one of those summers that she gained the attention of former Kansas head coach Kalum Haack. Clopton spent that summer playing in a California women’s league alongside former Kansas second baseman Heather Richins. Chet Miller, her coach during her time with the women’s league, was a friend of Haack and recommended that he take a look at the young pitcher. She believes that playing softball during the summer played a huge role in her coming to Kansas.
“You don’t get recruited in high school, you get recruited playing summer ball,” said Clopton. “After visiting several different schools, I fell in love with the town, the community, and the people at Kansas.”
Clopton ended her high school career at University High School in Orlando, Florida, with an ERA of 0.28 and 856 strikeouts. She was a four-year letterwinner in softball and three-year letterwinner in volleyball. At the end of her senior season, she was honored by having her number 18 jersey retired. She received several awards such as the Orlando Athletic Association Athlete of the Year and was a two-time Orlando Sentinel Athlete of the Year.
In her first season at Kansas, Clopton came in to replace senior pitcher Beth Robinson who was coming off of back surgery. Although she had big shoes to fill, Clopton led the Jayhawks in both strikeouts and pitching appearances with 131 Ks in 34 appearances. She pitched a season best 190.2 innings, with four shutouts and two saves. She credits the success of her freshman year to her youth.
“When you’re a freshman your eyes are wide open,” Clopton explained. “Nobody has seen you pitch so you can use that to your advantage.”
Her success carried on into her sophomore campaign where she paced the team with an ERA of 1.48 in 53 appearances leading the Jayhawks to the NCAA Tournament. She pitched in all eight of the Jayhawks’ postseason contests and helped the team notch a 2-2 record in NCAA Tournament play. Her work ethic and determination made Clopton a natural leader among her teammates. With the support of her peers, she was able to perform at the highest level.
“It was incredible and quite the experience,” Clopton recalled of her first NCAA appearance. “When your team needs you to throw, you throw. That’s what your there for.”
That work ethic helped her earned several postseason honors including First Team All-Big 12, being voted to the Big 12 All-Tournament Team and named an all-region honoree.
In the 1997 Kansas softball media guide, the KU coaching staff described Clopton as, “a fierce competitor who is driven to be the best that she can be.”
Clopton excelled both on-and-off the field as she served as President of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, while majoring in health education. She was celebrated by her teammates and coaching staff for being a workhorse and was voted the team MVP in 1997 and Co-Defensive MVP in 1999. It was during this time that she was able to learn the importance of time management and hard work, two traits that she has been able to put to use after her time at Kansas.
“Being a student-athlete teaches you time management. Successful student-athletes are able to juggle everything and still be successful,” said Clopton. “I have the confidence to manage anything. I know I can work hard and that I work harder than a lot of people.”
During the preseason of her junior year Clopton suffered an elbow injury that would prevent her from taking the field for the duration of the 1998 season. That same year Aaron Clopton joined the softball staff as a student manager. While being sidelined due to injury was difficult for her, she found some sense of happiness in Aaron. During her rehabilitation, she and Aaron began to talk and in March of 1998 the two began dating. After dating for about four months, Aaron proposed to Clopton in romantic fashion at the Campanile overlooking Memorial Stadium.
“If not for my injury I probably wouldn’t have dated Aaron,” said Clopton with a slight chuckle. “We spent a lot of time together.”
On July 31, 1999 Sarah Workman and Aaron Clopton were married and spent their honeymoon hiking in Colorado. Clopton returned to the softball diamond for the 1999 season with not only new pitches in her arsenal but a new last name. That season, Clopton went on to be named All-Big 12 First Team, Second Team All-Region, the Metrodome Classic MVP and Co-Defensive MVP alongside first baseman Shannon Stanwix. She helped the team earn another trip to the NCAA Tournament where they recorded a 2-2 record. Her experience at the Metrodome Classic is one that she remembers with great pride since it marked her first tournament coming off of her injury.
“It was fun since it was my first tournament back since I sat out the season before,” Clopton recalled.
Coming off a NCAA Tournament appearance in 1999, the 2000 season marked Clopton’s final season as a Jayhawk and she did not disappoint. She led the team that year in almost every pitching category, racking up numerous awards. She was named Academic All-Big 12 First Team as well as being named to the Florida State Invitational and Lady Vol Invitational All-Tournament Teams.
In her Kansas career, Clopton was a letterwinner during the 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2000 seasons, who etched her name in the KU softball record books for years to come. Her most impressive mark in that record book is ranking second all-time in strikeouts with 762. She currently still holds the records for most single season appearances (53), most career appearances (163), most innings pitched in a single season (311.2) and most complete games in a season (41). She also holds the sophomore records in both appearances (53) and innings (311.2).
“When you grow up playing softball and then get to represent a school, it’s something you are proud of,” said Clopton reminiscing on her college career. “Playing in college is the exclamation point to growing up.”
Sarah and Aaron Clopton both have remained active members of the Kansas softball program since they graduated by attending as many home games as they can throughout the season, as well as other KU athletic events. Clopton currently works at the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.
Aaron Clopton is an associate professor in the University of Kansas Health, Sport, and Exercise Science Department. He served as both a graduate assistant and assistant softball coach at Kansas and was recently named the 2014 recipient of the Del Shankel Teaching Excellence Award. The couple has two daughters and one son who all have developed a love for the game that brought their parents together.
“I love to see the game through the eyes of my kids,” Clopton said. “I get to relive my childhood in some ways.”
Rarely in life do things go exactly as planned. In Sarah Clopton’s case, not even in her wildest dreams could she have imagined that she would be sidelined due to injury, meet her husband and come back stronger than before. In her time at Kansas, she not only set records in the circle, but she learned two important life lessons along the way that still ring true for her today.
“I learned to appreciate what you have before it’s gone,” Clopton said. “And that the friends you meet are the friends you keep for life.”
One of those friends was Aaron Clopton, who turned out to be not only her best friend, but her husband.
Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk