Cats still on quest to satisfy promise

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Jasper boys tennis coach Scott Yarbrough addressed No. 1 doubles players Luke Hochgesang, center, and Joe Kemker at the fence during last week’s regional championship. The ninth-ranked Wildcats have lost just one individual match in five victories en route to their third straight state finals appearance, though Friday’s first-round finals opponent looms as a major test. The Cats will clash with No. 3 Indianapolis Park Tudor at 3 p.m. Friday in the quarterfinals at Fishers.

By BRENDAN PERKINS
Herald Sports Editor

The pact was hatched roughly five years and four months ago. Standing on the back deck at North Central High School, twin brothers Ben and Eli Seng, now seniors, and recent graduate Will Seger initiated the vow and got Jasper tennis coach Scott Yarbrough in on it, for accountability’s sake.

The players were in Indianapolis watching Seger’s cousin Stephanie compete at the state tennis for Jasper’s girls team, thus motivating the pact by the boys: to reach the state finals when they progressed to high school. Just once.

It’s hazy as to whether the missive has been met. Friday, the ninth-rated Wildcats (18-3) are bound for their third consecutive state finals venture when they tangle with No. 3 Indianapolis Park Tudor (14-4) in the quarterfinals at Fishers High School. But, as Yarbrough points, the pact called for the team to play in Saturday’s final four.

“And we haven’t done that yet,” Yarbrough said.

That’s the tricky part of the new finals configuration integrated four years ago, Yarbrough said. It’s now easier to capture a semistate, since that requires taking one match instead of two. But it’s more taxing to win the initial state finals encounter, especially when granted the draws the Cats have received the last two years when they were ranked in the top 10.

In 2011, sixth-ranked Center Grove bounced the Cats 4-1. Last October, second-rated Park Tudor eliminated Jasper by the same score. Completing their pact in the third try won’t be a cinch, but for the latest finals appearance, the Cats are both more at ease and more bullish.

“I think we’ve got a little more confidence going in that this is our third trip and that we’ve made this before. Three of these guys (the Sengs and Grant Weaver) have already done this twice, so you’ve got a lot of experience,” Yarbrough said. “(Park Tudor) lost four guys from last year’s team, so they’re probably not as experienced as we would be from a team standpoint.”

The Panthers, though, do wield junior star Dan Rayl, whom Yarbrough identified as “the odds-on favorite” to capture the individual singles state title. Eli Seng managed to take just one game from Rayl in each set of last year’s encounter while Weaver dropped his No. 2 singles match 6-1, 6-2.

Yarbrough, though, senses Weaver’s thirst for a rematch against the same player. He’s played Scott Thygesen close in tournaments before, and Weaver assured there’s no being spooked by a talented player or a team of seven-time state champion Park Tudor’s ilk.

“I don’t care about what you did in the past. It’s not like you’re playing against (three-time state singles champ and 2013 Bloomington South graduate) Ronnie Schneider and you know you’re going to lose. You’re playing against kids you’re capable of (beating) if you play the best tennis,” Weaver said. “Park Tudor doesn’t scare me, the school doesn’t scare me. I just want to be competitive and stay focused and do what I do best.”

At this point, when the talent they face equals or exceeds theirs, the Cats aren’t likely to change anything. It’s tennis simplified.

Jasper No. 1 doubles player Luke Hochgesang pointed to Jasper’s matchup last month against top-ranked Carmel. The Cats held set points on the Greyhounds at two positions, and though they ultimately surrendered each match in straight sets, they played freer tennis as a defense mechanism.

“I think it almost helps with the pressure,” Hochgesang said. “Like against Carmel, you come out and you play so much better because you’re not worried about winning. I mean, obviously you want to win, but you’re not worried about every little shot. You’re worried about getting into the points and trying to win the points. You’re not worried about ”˜I’ve got to hit the ball this certain way.’”

Hochgesang is even toying with a new wrinkle before the big day, as he’s been polishing a new serve that’s more off-pace with heavier topspin. Yarbrough said the Cats could opt to shake Park Tudor’s rhythm in doubles by playing an I-formation on serve, with the net player stationed in the center of the court instead of the standard post on the left or right.  

While Park Tudor’s doubles guys were more finesse players last year, the expectation is for heavier hitting Friday. And that’s just fine by the Cats. The harder, the better.

“They’re going to play doubles more like we do. And I think that’s probably actually good for us,” Yarbrough said. “I think we’d rather play teams that are more aggressive and get after it instead of lobbing the ball.”

Breaking through at the state finals is a whole different task; since the Cats seized the state championship in 1999, they’ve dropped their opening state finals match in their last four visits. A minimum of three individual wins Friday is all it takes to zap that trend, and to satisfy the fine print beneath that long-standing pact.

“Hopefully we can just get a ”˜W,’” Weaver said. “Third time’s a charm.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.




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