Jasper not overlooking Rangers in sectional

Photos by Kaiti Sullivan/The Herald
Forest Park's Wesley Stout hits the ball during his singles match at the tennis sectional in Jasper on Wednesday. For more photos from the sectional, click here.


JASPER — When it comes to tennis, there’s not much argument about where the best facility is and who the best team is. Jasper is among the tennis elite.

Wildcats coach Scott Yarbrough is humbled by the blessings that have been bestowed upon his program, both with the facility that bears his father’s name, and the players who are the legacy of one of the state’s best.

Those teams that must face the Wildcats in the postseason concede that the road to the state tournament goes through Jasper ... literally. The Wildcats are hosting a sectional which concludes today when Jasper and Forest Park meet at 4:30 p.m., and then regional and semistate play is also scheduled for the Ed Yarbrough Tennis Complex.

The quest for a state championship got underway Wednesday, and abruptly ended for Southridge and Perry Central, the other two teams in the four-team bracket. The winner of today’s Jasper-Forest Park match advances to next week’s regional as another step toward the state throneroom.

Forest Park had a light day Wednesday versus Pike Central. The Chargers fielded only three singles teams, forfeiting the two scheduled doubles matches, so they started out in an 0-2 hole to a Ranger team that took full advantage of the jump start and rolled to a 5-0 win to advance to today’s finals.

Meanwhile, as Southridge coach Paul Kinker admitted, the Raiders “hit a buzz saw,” losing to the host Wildcats, 5-0, who are attempting to win their 14th consecutive boys tennis sectional title. The last time Jasper wasn’t a sectional champion was at the hands of Southridge in 2005.

“We had a great season. We finished the regular season 12-5, so that’s excellent for us. We haven’t had that winning record in a very long time at Southridge, so that’s good,” Southridge coach Paul Kinker said after being ousted from postseason play, trying to find the silver lining for the season.

“Unfortunately, we hit a buzz saw here at the Jasper sectional. Jasper’s a very good team. We lost 0-5, but I think we played very well.”

Kinker heaped lavish praise on his players, especially Austin Barkley and Owen Kinker in No. 1 and No. 2 singles, respectively. He said the matches were hard-fought, and his players could have won a few more games had the ball bounced their way at times.

“Obviously, we’d liked to have won a couple of sets and advanced, but it is what it is,” the coach said. “We played the best today. Jasper is very, very good. It’s a little softening when you get beat by the best in the area.”

Jasper's Mitch Kluemper, left, and Grant Stratton warm up before the tennis sectional in Jasper on Wednesday. For more photos from the sectional, click here.

The silver lining for Kinker is that Southridge returns almost its entire team intact next year. “They all they all come back. I only lose one of the seven [to graduation] that came back today. Next year’s looking very good for us.”

To be sure, Southridge is part of the majority who must wait until next year to reap anticipated success.

Although Forest Park advanced to the finals, the Rangers’ reward is facing the tennis Goliath to their David, as coach Dean Blessinger termed it.

“It’s a tall task tomorrow night. Jasper, they just don’t beat themselves. They’re fundamentally as good as anybody you’ll run into. And, mentally, extremely good, too,” Blessinger said of today’s opponent. “Now, we have won matches against them, individually, so we know we can do it. “We’ll put up a good fight,” he said, while also admitting “it’s a David and Goliath story.”

But Blessinger is pleased with his team, and expects his players to be very competitive today. But that was not always the case this season.

“I’m happy with my guys. We have really started to play some good tennis the last two weeks of the season. It took us a long time to get going; I was pretty frustrated in the middle of the season with this group. But now I’m fairly happy with them. We fell to 3-5 at one point in the season — we had a bit of a come-to-Jesus meeting, we regrouped and were able to squeeze out a 7-7 season.”

For Jasper, which has won the sectional title year after year after year after year, Yarbrough realizes the finals are not just another day at the office.

“Even though it’s a match you may be comfortable with, I’m sure there’ll be some butterflies. It is a sectional final, and we don’t take those for granted. We don’t overlook anybody,” Yarbrough said.

But the longtime coach is confident his team is battle-tested, and well prepared to take the next step in postseason play.

“As always, we will focus on us, more than our opponent. We’re of the mold that we’ll kinda do what we want to do, and then go on from there” Yarbrough said. “I’m very confident that our schedule and what we do in practice prepares us for sectional, regional and moving forward. It doesn’t mean we’re always going to win. But I feel like the way we practice and the way we go about it and the teams that we play — I think we’ve played eight of the top 13 teams that are ranked, I think we played all five of the top teams. We’ve played the best, we’ve played some teams in the middle of the road, so, no offense to Coach Blessinger, but they’re not going to show us anything that we haven’t already seen somewhere throughout the state. We don’t do it because we’re arrogant, we just go out and try to play competition that’s not so close to home so we can see teams we may see down the road. Does that mean we’re overlooking [the teams closer to us]? I don’t think so.

Southridge head coach Paul Kinker shakes hands with the Jasper team during the tennis sectional in Jasper on Wednesday. For more photos from the sectional, click here.

“The one thing that’s always a little difficult for us, is that we don’t see these teams during the season, so [facing them in sectional] is always a little bit of a hidden gem, it’s a little different.

“It’s the old cliche, we’ll do this one at a time. Coach Blessinger does a great job at Forest Park, and his guys will be prepared. We’re familiar with them and how they go about things. I really feel like if we come out and play good tennis, we’ll be fine,” Yarbrough said.

“Can we handle it, handle the butterflies? We’ll find out [Thursday]. Each step, you want to get a little bit better, you want to improve. The next step’s going to be a little bit harder because you’ve got teams that have advanced. So we want to be a little bit better [Thursday].”

Jasper ranks fourth all-time with 38 sectional championships of the 54 titles that have been awarded, and Yarbrough knows the program’s success isn’t by accident.

“We’ve been blessed that we have a community and a program that dedicate themselves to the sport,” he said. “The history behind the program speaks for itself. The success this program has had is solely 99% based on the effort and the time the kids put in. The trophies — and my dad would say the same thing — are because the kids put in the time, and they do a great job of it.”

Jasper’s success and the facility that is the centerpiece for the program are not taken for granted. We’re pretty lucky — the facility is second to none. I think the facility speaks for itself,” he says of the Wildcats’ home. “We’re pretty blessed.”

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