Tennis preview: 3 sectional champs return fully loaded

Herald file photos
Jasper’s Noah Luebbehusen (above left) and Northeast Dubois’ Alex Harder (above right) each helped their teams collect sectional titles last year, with Luebbehusen and the Wildcats then edging the Jeeps in the regional en route to a semistate appearance. Luebbehusen is part of Jasper’s seven-man senior class this season, while Harder helps lead a team that returns six of seven varsity performers.

By BRENDAN PERKINS
bperkins@dcherald.com

Scouting this year’s area boys tennis teams:

 

Jasper Wildcats

Last season

Raked in a 12th straight Big Eight title and rolled to sectional and regional crowns before ending a 13-9 season with a semistate loss to Bloomington North.

First match

Tuesday at Terre Haute South

Returning players

Lucas Eby (Sr.)

Andrew Hochgesang (Sr.)

Dawson Hopf (Sr.)

Noah Luebbehusen (Sr.)

Noah Mendel (Sr.)

Eli Franks (Jr.)

Key newcomers

Noah Schum (Sr.)

Park Wurster (Sr.)

Mitch Kluemper (Soph.)

Bennett Schmitt (Fr.)

Notable: Things are arriving in abundance around Jasper’s Ed Yarbrough Tennis Complex.

Seven seniors. Nine incoming freshmen. Twenty-three players overall in the program. It’s the most that coach Scott Yarbrough has had in all those categories as he enters his 15th season as the boys coach. Yarbrough expects something else to be in steep supply, and that’s versatility with guys capable of operating in both singles and doubles. Along with that, Yarbrough expects to try his fair share of different lineups before finding one that sticks.

The Wildcats did encounter an offseason snag when Eby, last year’s No. 1 singles player, tore his ACL. He’s completing the rehab process and might be able to return later in the season on a limited basis, though Yarbrough said he’ll still be around as a manager/supporter.

“I don’t know that he would become healthy enough for a permanent spot, but we’d love to get him one more match before he graduates,” Yarbrough said. “That was a tough blow over the winter.”

Yet Yarbrough still foresees forward progress with guys like Mendel (who is yet to lose a preseason challenge match) and Franks (in Year 3 of varsity tennis). Plus, Yarbrough said Hopf “has made a nice little push” and could rise in the singles lineup, Luebbehusen and Hochgesang lend doubles experience and Schmitt should push for a varsity slot immediately.

Quotable:I really like to think we’re going to take a step,” Yarbrough said. “Last year was really a reloading year because we had graduated so many seniors from a year before, and I thought our guys did a really nice job from being inexperienced and (having) guys in new spots, I thought we did a great job. These guys have played in a lot of tight, close, competitive matches, so I hope the experience kind of overshadows if there’s a lineup change a little bit.”

 

Northeast Dubois Jeeps

Last season

Captured their fourth straight sectional title, won the Blue Chip crown and finished 18-1 after bowing out in the regional semifinals.

First match

Monday at Pike Central

Returning players

Alex Bauer (Sr.)

Case Eisenhut (Sr.)

Alex Harder (Sr.)

Reece Bauer (Soph.)

Luke Harder (Soph.)

Ethan Ziegler (Soph.)

Notable: The talent is there and it’s been entrenched for a while, evidenced by the Jeeps’ 89-6 record over the last five years. That includes a run of four consecutive undefeated regular seasons. Now, Northeast Dubois feels like it’s taken another key step toward its goal of an even deeper postseason march after the Jeeps have challenged Jasper in the last two regionals, losing 4-1 in 2015 and 3-2 in 2016.

The Jeeps have bolstered their schedule, getting into invitationals at Evansville Mater Dei and Jasper — and they made a sacrifice to do it, dropping the midseason tournament they hosted to make room for the schedule additions.

“That’s really going to help us as far as playing better competition. We’re happy about that. We’re happy about our schedule. It’s going to be a little bit tougher,” Jeep coach Dwayne Knies said. “This schedule we have now will kind of give us a little more competition early in the season, middle of the season. It has a nice balance to it.”

Only one player graduated so a wealth of talent returns, including Eisenhut and Alex Bauer (last year’s top two singles players) plus Alex Harder, half of last year’s No. 1 doubles combo. Knies assured none of this year’s positions are certainties just yet with so much parity in ability, but based on the summer sweat his guys put in, the Jeep coach knows he’s got the ingredients to keep the run rolling.

Quotable:We definitely have some goals in mind, and the experience coming back is definitely going to help us,” Knies said. “We have a lot of potential, but we also realize potential never won anything, so we’re going to have to continue to work and improve throughout the season if we want to get where we want to be and to reach our goals.”

 

Herald file photos
Heritage Hills (top left) claimed its first sectional title in 23 years last season, while Forest Park’s Collin Hochgesang (far right) helped guide the Rangers to a conference title. Southridge’s Carson Mundy (lower left) is one of five Raiders entering their third varsity season.

Southridge Raiders

Last season

Finished 5-12 overall and 2-6 in the PAC.

First match

Tuesday at Northeast Dubois

Returning players

Logan Welp (Sr.)

Garrett Altmeyer (Jr.)

Alex Biehl (Jr.)

Michael Kappner (Jr.)

Carson Mundy (Jr.)

Owen Kinker (Soph.)

Reid Flick (Soph.)

Key newcomers

Austin Barkley (Fr.)

Levi Schaeffer (Fr.)

Notable: The narrative is finally changing with the Raiders, who are hopeful wins keep rising along with it.

After two straight seasons having a lineup loaded with youth and with experience in light supply, the Raiders now boast five upperclassmen and seven total guys with at least some know-how at the varsity level. Welp and Mundy have inhabited the Nos. 1 and 2 singles slots, respectively, for two years running while last season’s No. 3 singles player was Kinker, the son of new Raider coach Paul Kinker.

Paul Kinker might go with the same singles order again this year, as “based on the first week, they’re kind of lining up like that right now,” he said. But he added the lineup picture is still fluid, with Altmeyer, Biehl and Kappner also in their third varsity seasons as they contributed to last year’s doubles lineup.

Paul Kinker already has a foundation with the current Raiders as he helped start the middle school boys program five years ago, and he foresees another chapter of growth.

Quotable:I think we’ll be definitely competitive; more competitive that last year. We had a lot of underclassmen last year and all those returning, so we’re pretty experienced. We may not be the finer polished team that’s out there, but we should be competitive in most matches. That’s the goal. Be competitive and win as many (matches) as we can,” said Kinker, a native of Greensburg who’s also worked the last three seasons as an assistant for the Raider girls program. “I don’t have anybody that’s not committed toward tennis, so that’s great to see. This program is definitely on the upswing, and I’m glad to be a part of the ride, so to speak.”

 

Forest Park Rangers

Last season

Grabbed the Pocket Athletic Conference title with an 8-0 mark as part of a 12-2 season.

First match

Aug. 19 at the North Harrison Invitational

Returning players

Collin Hochgesang (Sr.)

Aaron Welp (Sr.)

Aaron Hurst (Jr.)

Joe Hurst (Jr.)

Reid Steffe (Jr.)

Key newcomers

Caiden Persohn (Soph.)

Nathan Jarboe (Fr.)

Notable: There’s nothing ambiguous about the mission Dean Blessinger has laid out for his guys.

“I have not had a team win back-to-back PAC (titles) outright. That’s the goal,” said Blessinger, entering his 13th season.

With all but his No. 1 doubles team returning, Blessinger feels he’s got the troops to make it happen, too. The Rangers’ two seniors should guide from different angles, as Hochgesang played No. 1 singles a year ago while Welp “is much improved, he feels that senior urgency,” said Blessinger, who foresees Welp anchoring a post in doubles.

Hochgesang’s status atop the singles lineup could change, as Blessinger said Steffe currently has the edge based on the preseason challenge matches the two have played thus far. Blessinger joked that Steffe used to get kidded about his shorter stature last season, but that’s all changed since he’s sprouted up a few inches to 6 feet as Blessinger now wants Steffe to adopt more of a power style to go with it.

Depth beyond the five veterans is a question, though Jarboe has brought an all-around game and proven he belongs, Blessinger said. And if the first week of practice is any indication — “they broke out shots that I’ve begged and preached for” like more volleys and sharper slices, Blessinger said — the Rangers made a nice first step toward that mission.

Quotable:I don’t know why, but I sense something special in this group,” Blessinger said. “You know how coaches are — we’re generally kind of negative. But there’s just an awesome chemistry, the older guys are working hard with the younger guys. I arrive at the courts 15 minutes before practice, but they’ve already got the (tennis) storage building open and they’re already out on the courts hitting already. That speaks volumes. And they’re almost never ready to finish when I say, ‘All right, let’s shut it down and get out of here.’ I think they sense it, too.”

  

Heritage Hills Patriots

Last season

Seized the program’s first sectional championship since 1993, ending up 15-4 overall and 7-1 in the PAC for a runner-up finish.

First match

Next Thursday at home against Evansville Mater Dei

Returning players

Kyle Birchler (Sr.)

Jacob Luebbehusen (Sr.)

Cameron Van Winkle (Sr.)

Trae Hirt (Jr.)

Josh Nelson (Jr.)

Logan Smallwood (Jr.)

Key newcomers

Luke Peters (Jr.)

Zach Weaver (Soph.)

Notable: As fun as last September’s drought-busting sectional title was, the Patriots have found that winning has some residual blessings, too.

“Winning a sectional like that kind of validates that (concept of) buying into the program,” coach Brian Oxley said. “It’s helped out a lot, we’ve got a lot of interest going into the program.”

The Patriots have added six solid freshmen, though Oxley expects to at least start the season with the returning elders inhabiting the seven varsity slots. That includes Smallwood, who didn’t pick up tennis until two years ago but became last year’s No. 1 singles player and team leader in wins. Luebbehusen returns to anchor No. 1 doubles, and the Pats expect a staunch 1-2 punch in singles with Van Winkle, who'll play No. 2 singles though Oxley said he’d be the No. 1 guy on many of the teams the Patriots play.

Some uncertainty does loom in terms of Heritage Hills’ postseason destination. The Pats are slated to be in the Princeton sectional, though South Spencer may not field a team this year and if the Rebels don’t, Oxley expects to be moved to the sectional field that includes Castle, which has grabbed 23 straight sectional titles. Still, “we have just as good a shot at Castle as anybody,” Oxley said. “I think we have just as good a shot at either one of the sectionals that we’re in, I really do.”

Quotable:You always worry after you break that little streak, that they’ll be satisfied. ‘Well, we got our sectional, that’s what we’ve been gunning for for a lot of years.’ But these guys aren’t,” Oxley said. “I’ve been really happy with the guys setting their goals higher, not just being happy with, ‘Well, we won a sectional, now we’re done.’ No, it’s ‘We won a sectional, let’s see what’s next.’ We’ve got talent, and we’ve got the ability to see what’s next. I’m pretty excited.”




More on DuboisCountyHerald.com