Seng takes perch among Cats' elite

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Jasper’s Eli Seng assumed the No. 1 singles post as a sophomore, and ever since, he’s been a consistent winner. With a career record of 61-21 against one of the best schedules in the state, Seng has inked a spot among the top five players in Wildcat history, by coach Scott Yarbrough’s evaluation. Saturday, Seng will lead the ninth-ranked Wildcats into a semistate clash with No. 12 Jeffersonville at 10 a.m. at the Ed Yarbrough Tennis Complex.

By BRENDAN PERKINS
Herald Sports Editor

Eli Seng has officially firmed up a spot in the unofficial list of the top five Jasper boys tennis players of all time. His coach, Scott Yarbrough, is also part of the elite group.

More on that fantasy power struggle later.

But to trace Seng’s path to the aristocratic status, well it’s simple, really.

It began with an unswerving passion for the game. And it’s been executed in Seng’s playing style that’s refreshingly simple, to the point of almost looking ordinary.

His results, though, are hardly pedestrian. In three years at the pinnacle of the Wildcat boys tennis team, Seng has manufactured a 61-21 career record. If the ninth-ranked Wildcats (17-3) top No. 12 Jeffersonville (19-1) in Saturday’s 10 a.m. single-match semistate at the Ed Yarbrough Tennis Complex, Jasper can lock up its third successive trip to the state finals, which would be a first for the program. The last two years, Seng has handled his semistate victories in straight sets, which is a departure from some semistate ventures in the past when taking the No. 1 singles match at that level of the tournament was more of a pipe dream than a realistic chance.

With Seng at the top, stability and wins have followed.

“It’s probably the first time in a long time — and no offense to the guys that have played 1 (singles) for us before, because it’s not an easy spot — that we stick a 1 out there and say, ”˜Hey, we’ve got a guy at 1 that can compete with just about anybody else,’” Yarbrough said. “And we haven’t always had that.”

Even before Seng splashed onto the high school circuit, Yarbrough had an idea he had something special.

The youngest of four tennis-playing brothers — his twin, Ben, who plays No. 2 doubles, is two minutes older — Seng once resisted being tugged along for road trips for his older brothers’ matches. That changed in middle school, when Seng began to relish the routine — he’d come right home from Holy Family School, and he’d be off immediately with parents John and Sandy to watch older brothers Heath and Jeff play.

Yarbrough, who said “I see a lot of myself in Eli,” molded Seng from the outset as a grade-schooler. While other youngsters were toiling with the basics, Seng already had graduated to the mental game.

Yarbrough was his tutor for swagger.

“He told me whenever I was younger just to come out here, expect to be the best, play the best,” Seng said. “If you expect to be the best, then you’re going to play the best.”

Seng hopped aboard early, serving as the student manager for the high school team when he was in eighth grade. After his freshman year, Eli quit the basketball team to pour more resources into tennis, even though Yarbrough — who was also an assistant varsity basketball coach at the time — urged him to stick with hoops as well.

Seng could have become a varsity hoops player by now, in Yarbrough’s estimate. Basketball’s loss was the tennis team’s gain. And if Seng were still playing hoops, he might be decked out in striped tube socks and mid-thigh shorts, seeing as how his tennis game is decidedly old-school.
“He is really a throwback,” Yarbrough said.

Seng may not pass the eye test as a first-team all-state player, a plaudit he earned last season and that is reserved for just 16 players statewide. He’s an endangered species in the modern tennis era of baseline bashers. He slices. He crashes the net and picks off volleys. Then he’ll bust out a winner up the line. And then, a deft drop shot.

Watching Seng pick apart standouts Lucas Miller of Washington and Tyler Haas of Northeast Dubois in the regional — he breezed 6-0, 6-0 and 6-0, 6-1 in those matches, respectively — it practically appeared he had the ball on a string. Back and forth, up and back. It’s slow tennis torture when playing Seng, and he’s perfected the craft since he grabbed the No. 1 singles position as a sophomore.

“I had to learn that I better bring it every night, otherwise I’m going to lose a lot of matches,” Seng said.

Now, with better than 60 No. 1 singles victories stowed away, Yarbrough has some fun playing the game of Where Does Eli Stand?

In 1999, Luke Recker hoisted the state championship trophy as the No. 1 singles player on that team. Further back, there were Kevin Cassidy and Tommy Sutton as well as Yarbrough, who pocketed the best individual showing by a Wildcat player as the individual singles state runner-up in 1988.

“I would think Eli’s going to fit in there. Here’s the thing that kind of goes unnoticed: ... He’s also played a much tougher schedule than some of these other players,” Yarbrough said. “But I think Eli fits in that top five, and I think when it’s all said and done, if you had to argue that, I think it’s an easy argument.”

And for supremacy within that top five? Both Yarbrough and Seng amicably cede to each other. Especially if both of them faced off in their prime, Seng said.

“I’m sure he’d win. Yeah, he’d probably win,” Seng said, glancing at his coach within earshot. “Right? Don’t you think?”

“I don’t know. Pretty tough to tell. Tough to compare different eras,” Yarbrough contended.

As for the Seng phase it’s nearly complete after 12 years with at least one brother from the family in the program. And it’s come full circle for Eli, who as a youngster studied the tennis games of the guys ahead of him. Now, Yarbrough sees kids hanging around matches — fourth-grader John Kemker, fifth-grader Bennett Schmitt and seventh-grader Nicholas Hodell — who revere Seng the same way.

Seng is almost certainly set on attending Indiana University next year and hopes to get accepted into the Kelley School of Business. And just when it sounds like Seng is through with tennis....

“It’s going to be tough not playing for Jasper next year, just because I’ve always grown up wanting to play for Jasper. That was like my big goal. I couldn’t wait to play high school tennis growing up. Next year, I can still stick around tennis, maybe teach lessons up there.”

....A top-fiver and a tennis lifer probably won’t keep the racket idle for too long.

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.




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