Cats all smiles after 2nd-place show

Bob Scheer/Special to The Herald, Indianapolis Star
Jasper’s Dawson Hopf, left, shook hands with Carmel’s Patrick Fletchall on Saturday after the boys tennis state finals No. 1 singles match in Indianapolis. Fletchall defeated Hopf to help the Greyhounds to their second consecutive state championship.


INDIANAPOLIS — Jasper boys tennis coach Scott Yarbrough issued a reminder that, as it turned out, didn’t need to be issued.

“Just suck it up for about two minutes. Nice smile,” Yarbrough told his players as they lined up for photo ops with the state runner-up trophy after Saturday afternoon’s championship match at Indianapolis North Central.

Yarbrough was standing on the far end of the back row, so he couldn’t see that every Wildcat was already smiling. Joking, even — as one Jasper player kidded with a teammate to suck in his belly for photo-snapping gallery of parents and fans. And this was no sort of forced, reluctant cheeriness.

Jasper’s satisfaction was twofold.

For one, there was no shame in accepting a 5-0 defeat to Carmel, the state’s top-ranked team which roared to its 10th state championship and second straight. Secondly, the Wildcats (20-4) recognized the revival that allowed them to take this postseason ride as far as it could go. With all that in mind, what’s not to smile about?

“You have a team that graduates your best doubles player, you lose your best singles player to a knee injury, and you go from 9-8 to 16-3 (in the regular season) and you play in the state championship match,” Yarbrough said, comparing last season to this year’s run. “The kids put in a lot of time, and as far as a turnaround, I don’t think there’s ever been one any better.”

The then-and-now comparisons left the rest of the Cats pretty floored, too.

There was Dawson Hopf, who went from borderline JV/varsity player last year to the No. 1 singles court this fall, and matched up with reigning individual state champ Patrick Fletchall in Saturday’s final. Hopf flashed a brief smile after winning the match’s first point against Fletchall, an Indiana University commit and the leading force of a singles trio that didn’t lose an individual match all season for the Greyhounds (22-0). Carmel seized all five wins in less than an hour and Fletchall didn’t drop a game, yet Hopf still reveled in the experience.

“Maybe some day in the future I’ll be watching him on TV, you never know,” Hopf said.

And when Hopf gave a shot at putting into perspective the Cats’ deepest postseason run since they grabbed the title in 1999?

“You can’t. It’s just crazy. I was looking back, and I think the last time they’d done something like this, I think I wasn’t born yet,” Hopf said. “It’s just like not too long ago I was here up on the balcony watching (Jasper’s) other state finals teams, and just being shocked by how good they were. And to be one of those guys and to be down here playing in the final match, it’s just crazy. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”

Yarbrough knew precisely the sort of challenge Carmel presented but was hazy about what to expect from semifinal foe Culver Academy, the college prep boarding school that featured four international players and had also switched lineups throughout the season.

The Wildcat coach found his answer in hurry with three comfortable straight-set verdicts in a 4-1 takedown of the Eagles (21-3). Andrew Hochgesang and Mitch Kluemper controlled No. 2 doubles 6-1, 6-3, Noah Mendel and Noah Luebbehusen reigned 6-3, 6-3 at No. 1 doubles, and No. 3 singles player Bennett Schmitt ripped through a 6-1, 6-0 victory. Eli Franks squeezed out Jasper’s fourth win, 6-4, 7-5 at No. 2 singles.

Bob Scheer/Special to The Herald, Indianapolis Star
Jasper’s Noah Luebbehusen waited on a return shot Saturday during the No. 1 doubles match in the state finals against Carmel. Luebbehusen and Noah Mendel were defeated as the Wildcats took second.

After the clamor of the semifinals came the calm — and that’s where Mendel paused during the two-hour break between matches to take inventory of exactly where the Cats had arrived.

“I kind of had to gather my thoughts and think about it, that we were actually in the state championship final, so it’s pretty unbelievable that our team made it this far,” Mendel said. “Last year we got wiped in semistate and I think that kind of stuck with us, and we didn’t want that to happen again, so we came out firing and everybody improved over the winter and we got better. I’m just so proud of this team.”

“First time we’ve been in the state final since 1999, so to be back here for the first time in 18 years, that’s pretty special,” added Luebbehusen, who joined Mendel for Jasper’s closest match against Carmel in 6-4, 6-2 setback. “To know we were a part of that, and even though we didn’t come out on top, it was an incredible year.”

A friendly state finals draw, which a couple of the Cats referenced, helped the beat roll on. Four of the state’s top five ranked teams were bunched in one half of the draw, but the Cats still had to pounce of their opportunity. And they cashed in with one prevailing trait.

“We held our composure better than Jeffersonville did on Friday and better than what Culver did (Saturday) morning,” Yarbrough said, “and that says a lot about these young men as individuals.”

Seniority ruled, too, with Mendel and Luebbehusen joining Jasper’s line of standout No. 1 doubles squads and Hochgesang anchoring No. 2 doubles the last two postseasons as well. Pure effort played into Hopf’s No. 1 singles rise, as he hustles like every match is his last — during the semifinals, he flagged down a lob on the dead run that plopped on the baseline, leaving Culver’s Ian Smith totally frozen in surprise at the net for better than five seconds.

And beyond that quartet, Jasper’s elder influences continued with three seniors who aided from the periphery as alternates.

“Park Wurster’s a great young man, Noah Schum last year was voted Teammate of the Year because the kids just love him; he just exudes confidence from those guys, great guy to be around. And Lucas (Eby) is the one guy that put so much time and effort into it and you feel bad for him because of the knee injury,” Yarbrough said. “Them receiving those medals, I smile just as big when they get them as anybody else.”

There’s those smiles again. The Cats were full of ’em in a post-championship celebration where they lingered practically as long as Carmel did. Second place still contained first-rate gratification.

“It’s nice, because being a freshman back then, I was not very good. And looking at me now, how much I’ve improved and how much we’ve all improved as a team, it feels good,” Hochgesang said. “We’re the first team Coach (Yarbrough) has had to get to the final match, so it’s nice knowing that we’re that team and we’ve gone just as far as pretty much any Jasper team has gone. It’s nice to leave a legacy behind, to come out almost on top as a senior.”

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