Duo shoulders Jasper’s tennis hopes at state

Jasper's Grant Stratton, left, and Mitch Kluemper fist bump during a doubles match that served as a prelude to this weekend's biggest stage: the state tennis tournament. Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald


JASPER — In the movie “A Few Good Men,” Col. Nathan Jessup asks Lt. Daniel Kaffe, “Ever put your life in another man’s hands, ask him to put his life in yours?”

Playing doubles tennis does not carry quite the same consequences and responsibility as serving in the military, but there is a comradery that exists between partners who have experienced the crucible of competition together, a yin and yang whose interaction influences the destinies of the two entities working as one.

Such is the case with senior Mitch Kluemper and junior Grant Stratton. On the tennis court, it’s difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. The top Jasper duo has amassed a 19-4 record against some of the top talent in the region, and will take the court at the state tournament Friday afternoon at Park Tudor High School in Indianapolis.

Win three games in two days, and Mitch and Grant will have accomplished something their coach, Scott Yarbrough, did not, what the Wildcats did not do three times as a team, and something only the 1999 Jasper team achieved — win a state championship. Yarbrough was a singles state finalist in 1988, and Jasper lost in the finals in 1985, 1987 and 2017 to either Indianapolis North Central or Carmel, two powerhouses that have ruled Indiana tennis for the past 44 years, winning 32 titles overall and the last 10 in a row.

Mitch and Grant face Bryant Zitlaw and Tim Steiner from Fort Wayne Homestead at 2 p.m. Friday. A win advances the Jasper duo to the semifinals at 10 a.m. Saturday, with a 2 p.m. Saturday finals date hanging in the balance.

Bryant and Tim sport a 21-2 record, and have been to the state finals the past two seasons, albeit with the rest of their Homestead teammates. Bryant, a senior, has been at the No. 1 spot three years, and Tim, a junior, two seasons.

To be sure, there are no pushovers at the state tournament, and that goes for Mitch and Grant, also.

“[Our coaches] said there’s no one up there we cannot beat. I completely agree,” Mitch said Tuesday as he and his partner prepared for their date in Indianapolis. “But every match is going to be a close one, every match is going to be great competition. I just look forward to getting out there and playing.”

For Mitch, this weekend is a return to the pinnacle of high school sports. As a sophomore, he and senior Andrew Hochgesang teamed for No. 2 doubles in Jasper’s latest state runner-up appearance.

Now Mitch is the upperclassman to Grant. And they know what works for them.

Jasper's Mitch Kluemper, right, congratulates Grant Stratton in their No. 1 doubles match during regional play in Jasper. The duo begins state tournament play Friday in Indianapolis. Marlena Sloss/The Herald

“We’re a good team,” Mitch assesses. “We’ve got good energy going. We’re both high players, so we feed off each others energy. When I get down, he gets me up, and when he gets down, I usually pick him up. We usually just feed off each others energy. It’s been working out good so far.”

His teammate’s experience is not lost on Grant.

“It’s my first varsity year, and I’m playing 1 doubles with the guy who’s been on varsity for three years,” he said. “Playing with Mitch, he’s been on varsity for three years, he knows how to stay calm in tough situations, and he has helped me do that whenever I’ve been serving or having trouble returning in big matches.”

The duo has had the benefit of experienced coaching.

“Yardy’s told us over the last couple of days that to win, we have to keep our heads up,” Grant said, using a casual moniker for Yarbrough.

“If we don’t keep our heads up, we’ll probably spiral down. That will cause us to probably ...,” he pauses, finding it difficult to even say the word, “... lose. But if we keep our heads up, then we’re a pretty good team, and that’ll help us do better against tougher opponents.”

The duo not only depends upon Yarbrough’s counsel, but also knows what works for the partnership.

“If Mitch is having a tough match, I’ll usually go and tell him to calm down and hit a spot with his serve, because all we need to do is hit spots with our serve. We’re pretty effective with our serves and our volley game, so I’ll try to tell him to hit his spot, and once he hits that spot, he’ll start rolling again,” Grant says.

And Mitch holds up his end of the bargain.

“I usually just have to pick him up, make him refocus,” he says of Grant. “He usually gets fixated on one thing he’s doing bad, and then he can’t focus on anything else. I try to take his mind off it, say a joke or something, just try to confuse him, make him think about something else. With his serve, he thinks it’s not that good, but I think it’s really good, so have to keep encouraging him to swing at the ball, go 100% every single time so he doesn’t get in a rut. Every time he screws up, I tell him it’s OK, that we’ve got to move on, [that] we can’t do anything about it.”

Playing on the state’s biggest stage, without the rest of his Wildcat teammates competing on neighboring courts, Grant is pragmatic.

“I’ll probably lose the first couple of points if I serve, because I’ll be scared out of my mind, because I’ve never played anywhere like state ever. There’s just a lot more pressure, I feel like. You don’t have your teammates playing beside you, so you can’t look at your teammates and be like, ‘Hey, how’s it goin’ over there?’ Instead, you have to play beside your doubles partner and your doubles partner only. Your teammates are outside the fence for the first time this season.”

But Mitch, as the one with three years of varsity experience, has a different approach.

“I just look forward to seeing everybody up there cheering for me, just seeing all the great competition up there. I just look forward to that experience again for a second time.”

Then he’s quick to point out, “I wasn’t even nervous the first time, because I had a great partner. He carried me a lot. I look forward to doing the same for my partner. I carry his attitude a lot.”

“He may carry my attitude, but I usually carry him with the skills and stuff on the court. I’ll carry him through the matches,” Grant retorted, his tongue firmly planted in cheek.

“What’s your return percentage?” Mitch quips, escalating the banter.

“What’s your serving percentage?” Grant shoots back

“Better than yours,” Mitch jabs his partner.

“No it’s not,” Grant reprises. “There’s no way it’s not.”

They apparently know each others strengths and weaknesses. As long as they work together, that’s all that counts.

“They are very competitive,” Yarbrough interjects. “They have done a great job playing No. 1 doubles against our schedule. They have always been high-energy guys. Grant is really improved from last year, and Mitch does a great job of leading, and brings three years of varsity doubles experience. I really just want them to go up and compete and see where we fall.”

Mitch does not expect the Homestead duo to present anything unexpected.

“I think I’ve played him all four years of my high school experience,” Mitch says of Bryant. “I played JV my freshman year — I think I played him at 2 singles in JV — 2 doubles my sophomore year and 1 doubles the past two years. I know one of the guys pretty well. I’ve seen him play a lot. The other guy, I’ve seen him play, but I really don’t have a good feel for him at the moment.

“I know what to attack whenever I’m playing them, where to focus the balls, know who I should be attacking the most, if I should be attacking at the net or not,” Mitch says with the confidence and wisdom of a seasoned player. “I just like to place my balls whenever I’m playing them, keep the balls in, keep my opponents on their [toes], make them hit the shots.

“I know who I’m playing, so I think I can pull something off with them. I feel confident in my ability, so I usually just go out there and play. I don’t have to worry about nerves or that it’s my first match or living up to someone’s expectations,” Mitch says.

“I just feel confident. We’re ready,” the senior says with commitment.

Grant concurred.

Thankfully, unlike the unfamiliarity of being interviewed for a newspaper article, on the tennis court, the partners play as one with one voice, one goal. When play begins Friday, confidence will replace any hesitation. A quiet, shared determination will fuel their abilities. An assurance that they deserve the brightest light on the biggest stage will empower them, and bolster the teammates who are the waning season’s last bastion for Dubois County tennis.

When future generations speak of Jasper’s representation in the state tournament — and they will — the names of Mitch Kluemper and Grant Stratton will surely figure prominently on the 20th anniversary of the Wildcats’ greatest tennis accomplishment.

Jasper's Mitch Kluemper, left, and Grant Stratton warm up before the recent tennis sectional in Jasper. Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald

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