From top to bottom, Jeeps surprise with easeAugust 21, 2013
By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer
DUBOIS — With her entire lineup returning from a year ago, Tracy Gutgsell figured she wouldn’t encounter too much unforeseeable change in the early season.
And perhaps more than anything, the Northeast Dubois boys tennis coach predicted a slugfest at No. 1 singles when her squad clashed with Southridge. After all, three-year Jeep headman Tyler Haas had some history with Raider frontrunner Tyler Gray, who also has harnessed the top single spot since his sophomore year.
In their first battle two seasons ago, Gray seized the opening set before Haas evened things and outlasted his adversary in a third-set tiebreaker. Last year, Haas collared the first set via tiebreaker before Gray was forced to retire because of back issues.
The scene was constructed for another back-and-forth affair. It was anything but.
Haas pelted consistent ground strokes, played patiently and capitalized on errors while minimizing his own. And in the duo’s final chapter, Haas cruised past Gray 6-2, 6-1, setting the tone for the Jeeps, who collected victories in all five matches Tuesday in Dubois.
“That surprised me,” Gutgsell said. “And I don’t know how to take it. Tyler Haas has always been strong. … But that one surprised me.”
For Haas, a determined start helped facilitate the result. Though he’d fallen behind early in the first set last season and dropped the opener a year prior, the Jeep senior quickly snatched the first three games Tuesday.
Room to breathe, for once.
“Every (match) we’ve had was so close and I’d get such a tight feeling,” Haas said. “So it was a good feeling starting up early.”
It could be calculated as preparation paying dividends. Over the summer, Haas worked tirelessly with his brother Kyle, who now plays at The College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati. While Tyler felt comfortable in letting his serve develop more organically, the preseason focus was pinned squarely on refining his volleys. The difference was clear.
“There wasn’t anything that stood out in particular, he just seemed solid in his ground strokes tonight. I think that was his major benefit, and I think that led to capitalizing on a lot of unforced errors,” Gutgsell said. “He just outplayed (Gray) in a lot of points by just keeping the ball in play and having nice, consistent shots.”
Though it wasn’t as close as previous encounters, the result was far from disconcerting for Gray, Raider coach Larry Kieffner said. With the senior concentrating primarily on golf throughout the summer, Kieffner said the early season is typically Gray’s period of adjustment.
“He’ll come around in the next couple weeks, I’m sure of it,” Kieffner said. “He’ll be all right.”
Both coaches viewed the county clash as a test sample of sorts for what’s to come.
Gutgsell was again impressed with No. 2 singles player Gage Knies, who notched a 6-0, 6-3 triumph against Mitch Steinkamp. After unknowingly playing last season with an ACL tear, the senior looks as comfortable as ever, his coach said. As does Gage’s brother Cayden, who dealt with some back issues during preseason but didn’t surrender a game at the final singles spot.
Both coaches paid particular attention to the No. 1 doubles match, which Tristan Linne and William Schepers claimed 6-0, 6-2 against Chad and Cam O’Bryan of Southridge. Though the Jeep tandem is typified by its aggressiveness, Gutgsell wondered if the Raiders’ height — Cam towers around 6-foot-3 and Chad is a few inches taller — would temper the intensity.
“It didn’t faze them one bit,” the Jeep coach said.
On the flip side, Kieffner evaluated the O’Bryan pair as unbridled potential. Neither played a substantial amount last season, and Tuesday was the first time the brothers paired up in a match.
“Sure, they made a lot of mistakes, but they’re intimidating,” Kieffner said. “They haven’t realized yet how good they can be.”
The trial-by-fire approach is somewhat thematic for the Raiders, who replaced four starters from last year’s team. Kieffner lauded the effort Steinkamp discharged at No. 2 singles and the resolve of Jose Ferrusquia at No. 3 singles, each of whom was playing his first varsity singles match. Though the Jeeps’ Patrick Betz and Ethan Kieffner dismissed Evan Julian and Corbin Neu 6-3, 6-0 at No. 2 doubles, Kieffner drew rational optimism as well, considering Julian has been battling injury and Neu missed a significant portion of last season with an illness.
“We couldn’t expect to tear up Dubois,” Kieffner said. “Dubois is going to be a very good team this year. They’re not going to lose many matches. They could go undefeated, I think.”
After their third and final regular-season bout, Haas and Gray talked for a little — about Gray’s golf game, about summer, about how strange it feels being seniors.
The notion is particularly bizarre for the Jeeps, whose roster hadn’t included a senior since Haas’ freshman year. His sophomore year, the roster was void of any upperclassmen, meaning Haas and his classmates donned the “veteran” title.
“We didn’t have any cars that year,” Haas joked.
Now that two years have passed without the Jeeps losing anyone, opportunity appears ripe. Northeast Dubois is yet to drop a set through its first two matches.
“We’ve had so many years without losing anybody, we knew we’d have a really good team if we kept working hard through the years,” Haas said. “It’s just about concentrating and wanting to be better every year.”
Contact Joe Jasinski at email@example.com.
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