Cats’ relative newbies hurry to the topSeptember 11, 2017
By BRENDAN PERKINS
JASPER — Thank goodness for that eighth-grade lunch table. Where would Jasper’s boys tennis team be without it?
Back then, Dawson Hopf had never played tennis. In fact, when his family vacationed to Florida a year earlier and his parents brought a couple tennis rackets, Dawson got gently shooed off to the side of the courts since he didn’t know the first thing about tennis. Then came those lunchtime convos. They sprouted three accidental tennis players, though the success of Hopf and fellow seniors Noah Mendel and Andrew Hochgesang has been no mistake.
“Me and Noah Luebbehusen and all of us kind of sat at the same lunch table, and me and Noah Mendel would always joked with Noah Luebbehusen that we were going to join tennis, but we really weren’t too serious about it,” Hopf recalled. “And then one day Mendel’s like, ‘If you join I’ll join,’ and I’m like, ‘OK, I think I’m going to join.’ I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Suffice it to say, Hopf and the rest have figured things out.
Wildcat coach Scott Yarbrough marvels at the DIY project, because the trio of relative greenhorns aren’t just contributing, but they’re among the players the Wildcats have been leaning on the most. Hopf, who didn’t become a full-time varsity player until near the end of last season, now occupies No. 1 singles. The others have found a home in doubles, and in the weekend’s Jasper Eight-Team Invitational where the Cats (36 points) placed second ahead of No. 10 Jeffersonville (24) and behind No. 14 Bloomington North (40), Hochgesang joined Mitch Kluemper to cruise to the championship in the No. 2 doubles flight while Mendel and Luebbehusen were the runners-up at No. 1 doubles.
“We’ve got three guys that have been playing since their eighth grade/freshman year, and we’re ranked 16th in the state. How good would we have been if they would have played tennis as long as they played baseball?” Yarbrough postulated of the three, who all played baseball since about age 7 or 8.
“It’s a little bit of a phenomenon. I’m surprised at times,” the Wildcat coach added. “If you would have watched Noah Mendel and Dawson Hopf and Andrew Hochgesang hit a ball four years ago, you would have not believed how far they’ve gotten now.”
Hopf and Hochgesang certainly can’t forget those wobbly beginnings that they’re able to laugh about now.
When Hopf things about the first cuts he tried at tennis camp the summer before his freshman year, “it was probably a shank,” he figures. Even that may have been a step above Hochgesang, who had to be taken from the main courts to the side courts for one of the instructors to help him catch up with one-on-one remedial instruction.
“It was awful. I probably had five balls (in the court) the whole time,” Hochgesang recalled of that hour-and-a-half session. “It was terrible. I was thinking, ‘Oh, this isn’t for me.’”
Raw as they may have been, Yarbrough knew he had something: athletes. All three figured baseball may eventually be their big thing, as they were on all-star teams growing up and each played a couple years in the high school program.
Mendel, who’s 6-foot-3 and can dunk a basketball, was the first to alchemize that athleticism in tennis as he can crank his serve upwards of 115 mph (the top male pros max out around 130 or 135). Says Yarbrough: “He has one of the best serves to ever come through this program.”
Yarbrough’s had relative latecomers make an impact on prior teams, and they often end up in doubles since singles strategy requires more time to gather. Hopf, who finished fifth at No. 1 singles over the weekend, has proven to be the exception. And Hochgesang, who idled about 16th or 17th on the program’s challenge ladder hierarchy two years ago, engineered an unlikely, massive leap into No. 2 doubles by the end of last season.
As Hochgesang waited behind former Wildcat stars like Grant Weaver, Logan Mathies and Jo Kemker, “they just looked so insanely good back when we were freshmen, and I’d have never thought I could be that good, ever,” Hochgesang said. “I’m not at that level, but it’s just crazy to see how far I’ve come, from just tapping it over, tapping my serve, and basically just getting everything in, to being aggressive and hitting topspin and just playing tennis how it should be played.”
Likewise for Hopf, the turning point arrived when he gained conviction to swing away.
“I had to get past that point of being too scared to mess up, because I’d be that guy that would just try to go out there and be consistent, push the ball and hope (the opponent) would mess up. (Assistant coach Dan Fair) would always tell me, ‘Swing the racket, swing the racket.’”
It requires a ton of swings, but Yarbrough said Hochgesang, Hopf and Mendel have all put in the time to catch up. You may have heard of the 10,000-Hour Rule, that it requires that amount of hours of work to become an expert at something. Yarbrough said the tennis equivalent is 10,000 swings.
That left three of the Cats’ seniors with a lot of catching up to do. But it wasn’t too late.
“You don’t know how good you are till you try,” Hopf said.
Jeeps prove their worth
For Northeast Dubois, the two-day tourney brought a couple revelations. One, a swap in scenery isn’t so bad. And two, the Jeeps found they definitely belonged.
As the smallest school by far in a field with six Class 4A squads, the Jeeps tied Bloomington South and New Albany for fifth place as No. 1 singles player Case Eisenhut and the doubles tandems of Alex Bauer and Alex Harder (No. 1) and Luke Harder and Ethan Ziegler (No. 2) all won two of their three matches.
Bauer and Alex Harder — “A-Squared” as the all-Alex pair is coming to be known in their first year together in doubles — earned a decisive 6-3, 6-1 verdict against 14th-ranked Bloomington North, which reached the Final Four of last year’s team state tournament. “That last match was definitely our best,” said Bauer, whose team traditionally hosted its own tournament on the corresponding weekend in years prior.
But as the Jeeps have been scarcely tested throughout the regular season in four straight sectional championship seasons, they sensed the need to add some heft to their schedule to prepare them for what awaits at the regional level. The trip to Jasper proved a worthy upgrade for moments like Harder and Bauer muscling out a 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) takedown of Silver Creek in their middle match and Reece Bauer executing a 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 No. 2 singles win over New Albany.
“We usually have a home tourney and it’s not much competition. This is something different, it’s the first time ever. We were definitely looking forward to it,” Alex Bauer said.
“I think we proved a lot, actually,” he added. “It’s new to us, so we definitely improved this weekend.”
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