Wildcats fully loaded for another runAugust 16, 2013
By BRENDAN PERKINS
Herald Sports Editor
When one of the most gilded tennis programs in the state starts talking in terms of superlatives and first-time achievements, it gets to be pretty serious stuff.
That may be what this year’s version of the Jasper boys tennis team is awaiting.
If the Wildcats can capture another semistate at season’s end, they’ll be the first boys team in the history of the program to make three consecutive state finals appearances. Heading the charge are three returning singles players whom coach Scott Yarbrough touts as perhaps the best trio the Wildcats have assembled since they won the state championship in 1999.
Toss in some rising newcomers, and it’s easy to see why the Wildcats are harboring some grand expectations as usual.
They’ve progressed to the state quarterfinals each of the last two seasons before being knocked out by the eventual state runner-up. A friendlier draw wouldn’t hurt, though the Cats are certainly angling for a deeper run this fall, no matter the hurdle.
“First things first, you’ve got to win your sectional and win your regional,” said Yarbrough, whose team finished 19-3 last season. “But our No. 1 goal is to win semistate, get to the state finals and see where it goes from there.”
It start with senior Eli Seng (20-8 last year at No. 1 singles), junior Grant Weaver (24-4 at No. 2) and sophomore Logan Mathies (23-5 at No. 3). Through Yarbrough’s eyes, “in the 11 years I’ve been coaching, this is probably the most talented three boys we’ve had in singles.”
While Seng and Weaver are likely to remain in those positions, the wild card could be Mathies. The Cats are heavily favored to advance to the single-match semistate, and since the IHSAA determines the postseason draw early in the season, knowing the potential semistate foe in advance could dictate the way Jasper’s lineup takes shape.
“The question is do we want to go into the tournament with a really, really, really strong singles lineup, or take Logan out of singles and strengthen our doubles lineup? The draw could determine that a little bit,” Yarbrough said. “Logan’s a young man who can do both (singles and doubles).”
Yarbrough acknowledges the doubles pairings are “a huge question mark” after the Cats graduated No. 1 doubles pair Will Seger and Noah Moss, last year’s individual state runner-up. Senior Ben Seng has logged two years of experience at No. 2 doubles. Yarbrough sees a “nice group of guys to fill some spots” as senior Luke Hochgesang, juniors Nick Monesmith and Daniel Eby and sophomores Joe Kemker and Alex Allen all contend for varsity vacancies.
The Raiders are in the midst of a personality shift. Experience and guile may be gone, but speed and flash is the new mode of operation.
That’s how the Raiders plan to reboot after graduating nine seniors, including five starters, who steered last year’s 13-5 season and runner-up finish in the Pocket Athletic Conference.
“The good news is I’ve got a pretty good group of athletes coming in,” Raider coach Larry Kieffner said. “They’re athletic kids, and there’s good talent to replace the ones we lost.”
The foundation at the top of the lineup starts with Tyler Gray, a senior and three-year incumbent at No. 1 singles. While illness sidelined Corbin Neu and an injury kept Evan Julian out of the lineup last fall, the juniors are healthy now and Kieffner expects they’ll complete the singles order.
Brothers Cam and Chad O’Bryan should fortify the doubles lineup — especially Chad, a 6-foot-7 senior with a potentially wicked serve. Cam, a junior, was an occasional varsity player last year. Kieffner has also been impressed with the improvement of sophomore Mitch Steinkamp, who should work his way into the lineup.
Kieffner added “it’s going to be close for that seventh spot” with four players in contention. Juniors Joe Wininger and Jose Ferrusquia and sophomores Luke Taylor and Adam Welp are all getting a look.
“Athletic, but not much experience. But we’re really coming around. I’m pretty happy with them,” Kieffner said. “Some of these kids have just barely played, but they are improving. I’m kind of looking forward to seeing where they’re at by the middle of the season.”
To Ranger coach Dean Blessinger, it doesn’t matter if he’s got freshmen or seniors or martians on his team. The expectation is to win.
And the demand for improvement has been unequivocally broadcast as the Rangers expect to see strides this fall — even after graduating Sam Beckman and Trent Weyer, the first Forest Park doubles team to ever reach the individual doubles state finals.
“I’ll be real disappointed if we don’t improve on last year’s record; 5-9, in my opinion, was unacceptable last year,” Blessinger said. “We’ve got to find a way to get to 7-7, 8-6, 9-5, somewhere in there, and I think we can do that.”
Blessinger said junior Emerson Thayer and sophomore Blake Emmert are still jockeying for the No. 1 singles mantle, and the other singles post will likely be plugged by senior Kade Olinger or junior Matt Miller. The one of those two who doesn’t end up in singles is expected to merge with senior Bryan Hurst to form the top doubles tandem.
If there’s one thing the Rangers have on their side, it’s numbers. Blessinger has 20 guys in the program — the most he’s had in his nine years. In contention for the other two varsity positions are as many as seven players: juniors Christian Graves and Travis Nord, sophomores Matthew Nonte, Aaron Meyer, Josh Thomas and Andy Schlachter and freshman Dillon Hasenour. Blessinger hopes the increased depth will be exemplified in improvement at No. 2 doubles, a point that’s been traditionally strong for the Rangers but one they struggled to win last season.
“I think we will put a (doubles) team out there that I believe can get that point at least 75 percent of the time, I’m hoping,” Blessinger said.
The Jeeps are apparently thinking one step ahead of their coach.
When Tracy Gutgsell passed by the tennis courts this summer, she usually saw some of her players out hitting. The itch to improve has been apparent, Gutgsell said, even with the entire lineup back from a year ago.
“I want them to play to their potential and not be coming in thinking, ”˜Oh we’re going to be good,’” she said. “I want them to play hard to prove themselves.”
The Jeeps are stocked with a quartet of four-year varsity guys, including No. 1 singles player Tyler Haas and No. 2 singles performer Gage Knies, who are expected to return to those positions. Ethan Kieffner and William Schepers complete the group of seniors, and they should find themselves in the doubles lineup along with junior Tristan Linne and sophomore Patrick Betz. Sophomore Cayden Knies also returns after playing No. 3 singles as a freshman, though he’s been limited by a back injury in the preseason.
Sophomores Jaxon Denu and Kaden Quinn are also challenging some of the veterans on a team that finished 15-2 a year ago and was part of a three-way share for the Blue Chip Conference title. Both the setbacks were 3-2 defeats to Loogootee, including one in the sectional championship that delayed the push to grab the program’s first sectional title.
“We’ve got our goals set pretty high. We want to do a lot,” Gutgsell said. “Conference is always on the list. Being in Loogootee’s sectional, obviously that sectional title’s hanging there. That’s a high priority, but we’ve got a lot of work to get there, and without losing anybody (from last season), everyone’s out to get the good team.”
Patriot coach Brian Oxley is viewing this year’s team as something of a long-term investment.
The returns may not arrive immediately for the Patriots, who return top two singles players Dugan Kippenbrock and Tyler Waggoner but no one else from last year’s 4-10 squad. The onus has shifted to molding four players with little to no prior tennis experience. And all of the rookies will undergo trial by fire, since the Pats have just seven players in the program this season, meaning each of the newcomers will claim a varsity slot.
“This is really a year we’re going to learn how to play the game,” Oxley said. “That’s what we’ve told the boys, the wins will come later, as in next year and the year after. This is a year we have to learn what the game is all about and what the sport is all about.”
One guy who knows that already is Kippenbrock, a senior who’ll be at No. 1 singles for the second straight season.
“I think he can play with anybody in the PAC. He can at least put up a match against anybody,” Oxley said. “He can win a lot of matches.”
Waggoner, a sophomore, returns at No. 2 singles and is still accruing valuable experience, Oxley said. Classmate Keith Woolems, last year’s top JV player, is also ushered into the varsity mix.
Sophomores Pierce Brown and Dalton Gray, who both discovered tennis from being buddies of Waggoner’s, are giving the sport a shot for the first time. Gavin Fella and Jonathon Hoppenjans are a pair of freshmen who will also jump into action.
Contact Brendan Perkins at email@example.com.
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