Wildcat family all in for another state ride venture

Photos by Tegan Johnston/The Herald
Jasper’s Jillian Seger, left, and Kathleen Messmer hugged coach Scott Yarbrough after winning their No. 2 doubles match during Saturday’s semistate at the Ed Yarbrough Tennis Complex in Jasper. The ninth-ranked Wildcats rolled through four straight-set wins to dismiss No. 20 Evansville Memorial to earn a state finals bid for a third straight season. Next up is a trip to Carmel on Friday for a quarterfinal matchup against No. 7 South Bend St. Joseph. For more photos from the match, click here.


JASPER — Family photo time. Which means you know that you’ll be lassoed into the picture, even if you try to dodge it.

After his team dumped Evansville Memorial 4-1 in Saturday’s semistate to reach the girls tennis state finals a third straight season, Jasper tennis coach Scott Yarbrough performed the roundup. Yarbrough bellowed for everyone who’s ever played for Jasper tennis — current and past, young and old — to squeeze in for a group picture.

“Did you play? C'mon, let’s go,” Yarbrough said, pulling yet another into the congregation of about three dozen.

“Heather, you too,” Yarbrough told his wife.

When the clicks of the cell phone cameras were just about to cease, Scott called out, “Jasper tennis family. Love you guys.” For Yarbrough, his reason for fostering the familial feel is twofold. For one, it was a promise he made to his father, Ed, as the two talked in the final days of Ed’s life seven years ago about maintaining the family feel in the program that Ed brought to prominence. And secondly, for as many victories as the Wildcats win and as many trips to the state finals as they pile up — this year makes it No. 14 for the girls — Yarbrough said they family feel is a priority because of how much they don’t win.

“There’s one state champion. So if your goal is to win a state championship every year, you’re going to be let down a lot. Your program has got to be built on something more than winning state championships. Because we’ve won one in probably 100 seasons if you count both boys and girls programs,” Yarbrough said. “That’s the pinnacle, that’s the ultimate goal, but for me, it’s having these kids come together and be a family, and when they’re done, they’re proud to come back and play for Jasper tennis. To me, that’s what Jasper tennis family is all about.”

Family’s also about loving each other amid those differences and rocky patches, and Yarbrough said his No. 2 doubles squad is a prime example of that bond.

Seniors Kathleen Messmer and Jillian Seger have had only an abbreviated time together this season as the lineup was continually tossed around, and at times when things weren’t going well, Yarbrough said they sometimes played the blame game with each other. But in time, their chemistry has blossomed, with Seger helping to provide a guiding current even as she had to take a backseat since she nearly wound up playing No. 1 doubles but instead found herself at No. 2.

Jasper’s Olivia Yarbrough (serving) and Caroline Theil grabbed the No. 1 doubles point by accelerating to a 6-4, 6-0 victory. For more photos from the match, click here.

“Those two managed to find a way to come together and say ‘Hey, we’re going to be 2 doubles, we’re going to be proud of it.’ Jillian, you’re going to lead, and Kathleen, we need you to be that positive influence that you can be,” Yarbrough said.

How’s this for unity: After Messmer ripped a final serve and a volley that handcuffed Memorial’s net player, their 6-3, 6-2 victory was complete, and so was a hug between the two after they notched Jasper’s third and clinching point against the 20th-ranked Tigers (17-4).

“It was kind of a monkey off the back. I’ve been waiting for them and waiting for them and waiting for them, and I just told them how proud I was and that they stuck together today,” Yarbrough said of his conversation with the two afterward.

That prompted Messmer to melt into tears, and then the waterworks started for Suchi Bandaru just seeing the emotions pour forth from her teammates. Some of Bandaru’s tears came from the realization it was the final match at home for Jasper’s seniors now that the ninth-ranked Wildcats (17-4) are bound for the quarterfinal round of the state finals at 3 p.m. Friday against No. 7 South Bend St. Joseph (23-1) at Carmel High School. After all, the Cats’ elders helped inject some conviction into Bandaru as the freshman roared through a 6-2, 6-1 rout of Olivia Schitter at No. 2 singles for Jasper’s first point of the day.

“Even last night, we were going to graduation parties, and Sarah’s like, ‘Oh you’re going to be great, you’re going to go out there and win your match.' I was really happy I was able to do that,” Bandaru said of the pep talks that came from Jasper’s No. 1 singles player, Sarah Monesmith. “The upperclassmen really did give me a lot of confidence going into the match.”

Even though Monesmith ceded a 6-1, 6-1 defeat to Memorial senior standout Makenzie Myers, “she played a lot better than what the score showed,” Yarbrough assured. And after Mallory Ahlbrand chewed up and spit out another No. 3 singles foe with her fifth 6-0, 6-0 shutout of the postseason, Yarbrough wondered whether there’s ever been a Jasper player (boy or girl) who’s rumbled from the sectional through semistate without dropping a game.

With three wins already secure, any drama had dissipated by the time Jasper’s Olivia Yarbrough and Caroline Theil closed out their 6-4, 6-0 triumph at No. 1 doubles. But that’s fine by Olivia, since in her last two matches at semistate she found herself on the court in matches closer in score and denser in tension with the team match still on the line.

“This year it was more like, ‘We already won, now we can let go,’” said Olivia, who’s now 3-for-3 in her high school career in making the state finals, as is Monesmith. “All three years have been great, and I just couldn’t ask for a better record as a high school tennis player and hopefully a fourth run next year.”

Jasper’s all-inclusive feel even extended to the message Messmer delivered as the class president a night earlier at Jasper’s graduation, as her speech acknowledged the kids who don’t reel in big scholarships or awards yet are still worthy of recognition for what they do in their everyday lives.

So, what rattles the nerves more, Kathleen? Speaking in front of a few thousand, or trying to serve out the tennis semistate?

“Definitely this,” Messmer said with a laugh as the first-year varsity player grabbed her first semistate win on court after three years of spectating.

“It’s awesome actually to be on the court instead of watching, because whenever we’re watching, we all get so nervous and we’re squeezing each other’s hands. To be the winning match was just awesome, because we were like, ‘OK, four points, three more points,’ we were just counting them down.”

Frequent visitors

Jasper will be making its 14th appearance in the girls tennis state finals, tied for the fourth most in the state. The leaders:

21 — Indpls. North Central

16 — Homestead

15 — Carmel

14 — Jasper, Munster

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