Wildcat netters win twice during Jasper InviteSeptember 2, 2019
By JONATHAN SAXON
JASPER — Max Sternberg went through a harrowing experience over the weekend when he stepped on the court for the Jasper Invite. The sophomore No.1 singles for the Jasper Wildcats played three matches over two days in which he faced a line of competition that will almost certainly be waiting for him during sectional. The stakes weren’t quite as high this time around, but an early meeting with the competition is always helpful for implementing strategy and figuring out which areas of your game need shoring up.
As for the first part of the process, Sternberg and Wildcats coach Scott Yarbrough had worked out what Sternberg needed to do to play successful tennis during the invite. The plan called for a lot of patience and keeping the ball in play as Sternberg worked out when he could load up on shot for a point.
“(Avon’s TJ Miller) was a push player,” said Sternberg as he talked about his opponent from the Saturday morning session of the tournament. “He wouldn’t miss, he would just make everything. His serve wasn’t so hard, so on his serve I was aggressive in my returns. I just pounded his back hand as much as I could until I got a ball I felt I could rip.”
And that’s exactly what Sternberg executed as he went on to defeat Miller (6-2, 6-4) in his morning match. He returned everything Miller hit with a good bit of sauce on it, but he wasn’t overzealous in chasing the ball around the court or playing close to the net. He simply sat back and waited for an opening to let one loose and win his point. Yarbrough had seen this same kind of pattern from him when he played in the No. 3 singles spot last season for Jasper.
“Max is a counter puncher,” the coach said. “He’s going to keep a lot of balls in play. Everything you see him do is a grind. He’s gotten a little stronger (and) faster, and now has the ability to hit some winners. Now the thing that he has to learn to do is stay up on that baseline, try to get him to push the envelope a little bit and hit winners.”
Staying up towards the net would be a recurring theme in his afternoon match against Center Grove’s Mason Runkle. Sternberg split a pair of matches against Runkle when the two met last season, so he had a good idea of what to expect before the match. However, Sternberg underestimated how hard he would play at the net and the kind of problems that factor in for their match.
“I knew he was good, but I didn’t think he was that good at the net,” he said. “I’d have to hit a perfect shot for him to not put the ball away. That was tough on me.”
Sternberg battled Runkle for three hard sets. Because of Runkle’s pressure at the net Sternberg was forced out of his normal rhythm, but still held his own as he made his way around the court to return everything hit his way. Sometimes he would make it, other times he wouldn’t, but he was never out of a set. But one area where it was clear Runkle was the superior player was in dictating the point. There were quite a few times when Runkle would get Sternberg comfortable playing the ball on one side of the court then suddenly he would switch up the return, which caused Sternberg to make a sudden scramble across the court to a ball that was hit just out of his reach.
“Runkle is pretty patient and has played all types of singles spots,” said Yarbrough. “The one thing he can do is close off at the net better than a lot of other singles players can. When (Sternberg) gets into the guy’s forehand, that’s when we ran into some problems. I thought (Runkle) the last three games did a great job of dictating points better than what we did.”
Sternberg wound up dropping the match in three sets, but the loss still added valuable insight for Sternberg to mine as he looks toward his next match when Jasper faces Evansville Reitz on Tuesday.
“In the third set I was tired, but when I had the chances I just couldn’t execute,” he said. “I felt like I should have just stuck to the game plan better. I should have hit it to his backhand at some points when I hit it to his forehand. I got to work on that.”
But Yarbrough was encouraged by what he saw during the weekend from not only Sternberg, but the Wildcats as a whole finishing up 2-1.
He knew Sternberg was going to hit a learning curve as he stepped up into the No. 1 singles role, but he has confidence that he will get to the best version of himself if he stays positive as he progresses. More experience will be key not only for Sternberg but for the rest of the team as they grow and move forward, which is why Yarbrough values outings like the Jasper Invite so much.
“What’s neat about this tournament is you get to face three quality teams,” the Wildcats coach stated. “We had a good weekend, we really just need some more experience. We’re a pretty young team with only one senior in the varsity lineup. We are solid from one (singles) all the way down to two doubles. Hopefully we can take a step forward and focus on strategy and not deviate from that too much. Wasn’t a bad weekend.”
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