Chatty Cats keep communication lines open

Brooke Stevens/The Herald
Jasper’s Ashley Rogers, left, and Elizabeth Theil congratulated each other during their three-set win against Columbus North during Saturday’s tennis semistate in Jasper. Rogers and Theil have amassed a team-best 27 victories this spring to help launch the fifth-ranked Wildcats to their 11th state finals appearance. Jasper will face No. 10 Indianapolis Cathedral in the state quarterfinals Friday at Carmel High School.

By BRENDAN PERKINS
Herald Sports Editor

Tennis has a reputation as somewhat of a silent sport. There are times when talking is taboo.

Wait a second. Scratch that. Around the Jasper tennis program, chatter is encouraged. And the Wildcat girls, who will make their 11th state finals appearance Friday at Carmel High School, are convinced they’re at their best when they’re talking and communicating the most.

Fifth-ranked Jasper (19-2) will take that missive into a collision with No. 10 Indianapolis Cathedral (16-4) at 3 p.m. Friday at Carmel High School. A win there would advance the Cats to Saturday’s second day of the finals at Indianapolis North Central, where the semifinals are set for 10 a.m. with the championship at 2 p.m. For the trip north, Jasper junior Elizabeth Theil is ensuring that communication is at the top of her list of things to take.

In last weekend’s semistate, when Theil and No. 1 doubles partner Ashley Rogers stuttered through a 6-1 defeat in the middle set after winning the first, Theil diagnosed the problem immediately. She and Rogers weren’t talking enough, and other pitfalls stemmed from that.

“If you’re playing together and talking throughout the points, it definitely helps, because obviously the second set we got really frustrated and wouldn’t talk to each other. And that’s when you kind of fall apart,” Theil said. “You have to keep telling each other — even when we’re doing something right — to keep our heads up and keep going for the shot.”

That’s why Wildcat doubles teams congregate after practically every point — win or lose — to slap hands, bump fists or exchange a few quick words.

With Rogers and Theil, the theme of their face-to-face tends to remain the same.
“Just keep telling each other, ‘Stay aggressive,’” Theil said. “I think just that one word goes a long way throughout our matches.”

Wildcat coach Scott Yarbrough has urged the volume to increase elsewhere, too.

He’s made sure his entire team, from No. 1 singles player Abby Rogers down to the last player on JV, makes a priority of cheering for other teammates when they’re not playing. At a match earlier this year, Yarbrough noticed a group of players mingling with their attention anywhere but the tennis court. The only player still on court was JV singles player Valerie Sargent, but Yarbrough passed by and issued the reminder that never changes: Make sure we’re supporting whoever’s playing.

“The more your team’s behind you and pulling for you, the better off you are,” Yarbrough said.

It’s also why in the aftermath of the semistate win over Columbus North, Yarbrough cut the rollicking celebration short for a moment and got back to business.

The Cats had nabbed their third and clinching victory, but No. 3 singles player MeKenzie Hilsmeyer was still on court, starting her third set.

Yarbrough pointed some of the Wildcat players in the direction of Hilsmeyer’s court. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. They knew what to do. In fact, one of the biggest cheers during the semistate match went up for Hilsmeyer when she won a point early in the third set.

“I definitely think hearing our team cheer us on calms us down and helps us relax and know that we can do it,” Abby Rogers said.

Yarbrough added that this year’s Cats have made as big of strides as any in terms of generating team togetherness. He said this spring differed from most since the season began with more positions up for grabs than usual — thus more intense challenge matches for spots — thus some natural friction.

Any of that has long since dissipated. The Cats have more pressing decisions and conversations now, such as what to wear and where to eat. They’ll head up toward Indianapolis tonight for their typical night out to a restaurant. It’s a formal occasion as they all wear dresses, as has become their ritual on overnight trips during the season. They arranged a more informal soiree Tuesday, gathering at Brie Kuntz’s house to swim, order pizza and make homemade ice cream.

“We try to throughout the year to do things outside of celebrating wins,” Yarbrough said. “We also try to hang out and do some things just to bond, and as the season goes on. I think you grow as a team.”

And of course, talking makes that happen.

At Wednesday’s practice, Abby Rogers and Ali Schitter interjected conversation as they faced off in practice sets, and Hilsmeyer chimed in from the next court, as well. At one point, Schitter sent a heavy forehand return to Rogers, who then lashed an angled backhand that Schitter could only watch from afar.

Schitter stopped and looked up.

“OK, why don’t you do that during a match?” she joked. Rogers simply laughed.
“It eases the tension a little bit when we talk to each other,” Rogers said.
“I think it has to be fun, too,” Theil added. “So we try to make it fun.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.




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