With view toward rehaul, Pats still prospering

Herald Sports Writer

LINCOLN CITY — Rebuilding, rebranding, retooling.

Whatever the vernacular, all talk at Tuesday’s boys tennis match between Pocket Athletic Conference counterparts Forest Park and Heritage Hills seemed focused on the near and distant future.

Of course, at the present time, there were matches to be played.

Led by sweeps from their singles spots, the host Patriots pulled out a surprising 3-2 victory. All three Patriot singles players won in straight sets and none gave up more than four games. On the other end, the Ranger doubles positions swept both matches in straight sets.

“Unfortunately, I couldn’t play three doubles tonight,” Forest Park coach Dean Blessinger joked.
Both squads entered the season with restrained, if reasonable expectations. Heritage Hills returned just two players from last year’s squad, one a sophomore in Tyler Waggoner, who played sparingly on varsity. But after five matches, the Patriots (4-1, 2-0) already have equaled their win total from the 2012 season.

The turnaround can be attributed in part to returning No. 1 singles player Dugan Kippenbrock, who used a powerful serve and ground game to defeat Forest Park’s Matt Miller 6-1, 6-1 on Tuesday.
 Patriot coach Brian Oxley said Kippenbrock is playing some of his best tennis so far this season, while Waggoner has become a solid option at the No. 2 spot after struggling a year ago. He defeated Emerson Thayer 6-2, 6-2 on Tuesday.

“Waggoner has had three great matches in a row,” Oxley said. “He’s staying calm. He’s staying composed. He’s matured a great deal. He’s come back this year as a sophomore and has shown major maturity on the court.”

Despite a start Oxley calls a “very, very pleasant surprise,” he’s speaking like someone on the other side of four wins.

“We are definitely a rebuilding team,” Oxley said. “We still are. Record or no record, however many wins we end up with, we are still not where we want to be as far as this program goes. And we will get better in the future. ... Four wins in the long run does a lot to build our spirits and the belief in ourselves. It’s a lot easier to come to practice when you’re winning.”

Some of the hesitation for celebrating may come from a team whose doubles slots are learning the pains of varsity tennis. Freshmen Jonathan Hoppenjans and Gavin Fella make up the No. 2 doubles spot. Sophomores Pierce Brown and Dalton Gray picked up rackets for the first time in July, but may best represent the Patriots’ plans for improvement.

Waggoner convinced Brown and Gray to attend open workouts. Brown is a baseball player and Gray played baseball and basketball through middle school before stepping away from sports as a freshman. The game is coming slowly to them, as was evident in Tuesday’s 6-0, 6-0 loss to Andy Schlachter and Bryan Hurst.

“We have small goals,” Gray said. “We go into games and we don’t try to instantly win. ... If we can get our serves in, our first and second serves, and avoid the net first and have solid hits — if we do that during a game, even if we lose, we’re still improving.”

“Any improvement is a win for us,” Brown said.

Oxley applauded the development of his newcomers and said they “will be good in the future.” As for Tuesday, they were unlucky enough to run into an established doubles team.

“(Schlachter and Hurst) really know how to play doubles,” Blessinger said. “We work hard on it. And if there’s something I’ve learned from Jasper’s way of playing tennis (in matches against the Wildcats during the regular season and playoffs), you have to assemble some solid doubles teams, but doubles strategy is a little different thing.

“But I’ve got some good-looking doubles players. I’ve just got to find some singles players.”

Those spots are up for grabs. Sophomore Blake Emmert, who sat out Tuesday after missing practice, has been the team’s regular No. 1, while Thayer and Miller have rotated at the No. 2 spot. Kade Olinger gives the Rangers (1-3, 1-2) another option.

“For us, it’s not win at all costs. We’ve got to teach lessons,” Blessinger said. “You can see that our strokes are hang-on strokes. We won’t release the racket. We’re gripped with the fear of failure and consequently we’re right in our own way.”

The most competitive match of the day came from Waggoner and Thayer, the final players to leave the court. Thayer began to push Waggoner in the second set, but lost after consecutive errors on returns in a must-win game.

Both teams are young, with a number of freshmen and sophomores still learning the finer points of the game, but a foundation at least seems to have been installed with talent at top positions and players who — if not winning — are at least trying to improve.

“They’ve done everything I’ve asked of them,” Oxley said. “I just show up and unlock the closet.”

Contact Joseph Fanelli at jfanelli@dcherald.com

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