FORTVILLE — Mt. Vernon tennis coach Gabe Muterspaugh has been around long enough to have Hancock County’s weather patterns essentially memorized.
April and May can get a little soggy, but once summer kicks in, the conditions are typically ideal to hit the courts. However, with steady storms rolling through the area for the past six weeks, predictability has been far from reliable.
“This is the worst summer I’ve seen ever just with the rain,” said Muterspaugh, who is entering his 20th season at Mt. Vernon. “The weather hasn’t been good, but we’ve been lucky. That’s been a great thing.”
Able to work around the unwelcome pop-up showers and torrential downpours, which have become a common occurrence, Muterspaugh’s tennis players haven’t been slowed by the elements.
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Quite the contrary. The Mt. Vernon tennis program has cranked up the heat in an effort to build for the future.
Hosting a youth tennis camp in early June, Muterspaugh had 168 kids, ranging from kindergartners to third-graders, come out and participate.
The timing couldn’t have been better for the two-week event as rain washed them out only twice.
At the same time, the high school players have been active in local tournaments and individual training, including with the Marauders’ junior team tennis program.
Launched by Muterspaugh and his staff to spark interest in the sport for both boys and girls, junior team tennis was introduced so players could face the high-level competition generated by surrounding powerhouses in Marion County.
“We’ve been doing a junior team tennis for the first time, working with Warren Central and Pike high schools,” Muterspaugh said. “We want to go out further into Marion County because the wonderful thing we get to do every single year is going from winning our sectional to the North Central Regional, which is that wake-up call for our kids.
“It’s a different world. If you see it, then you know what it is, and it makes it a little bit better. We’re trying to close that gap.”
Mt. Vernon’s junior team tennis gathered every Tuesday this summer, with three teams of five or six players. Nearly 20 players were part of the inaugural group, from sixth-graders to high schoolers, matching up and going to different sites to scrimmage and practice.
By involving the younger athletes, Muterspaugh hopes the high school program can retain and increase numbers, which has been a problem in the past with boys often departing for soccer or specializing in basketball, baseball or other sport.
“We’ve always had great athletes, and it’s been easier keeping numbers on the girls side,” the coach noted. “We’re trying to start kids earlier, giving them an chance to get to know us and the tennis program and seeing how much fun it is out there.”
Without a “definitive middle school tennis program” in place, junior team tennis fills a void for the Marauders.
The plan is to develop a permanent feeder system in the coming years, which Muterspaugh believes could become a reality with the recent hiring of athletics director Brandon Ecker.
“The more kids we can show playing in the summer, that’s going to make it easier on us,” Muterspaugh remarked. “We’re hopefully going to get that done in the next two years to make it a full-time sport.”
In the meantime, Joe Anderson, a former Mt. Vernon tennis player and a second-year math teacher at the high school, is going to lead junior team tennis in the fall.
“That’s the way it is these days. You have to adjust. You have to get with the times or you’re going to be left behind,” Muterspaugh emphasized on the importance of establishing a youth program.
“That first week, we’re going to try to have some call-outs. … With 12 courts at Mt. Vernon, I’m always open to sharing, so if we can get more kids, the more the merrier for me.”
In the long run, it could mean more hardware, too.
Since Muterspaugh took over the boys and girls tennis teams, the boys have netted six of its 11 sectional titles. The girls have captured nine, including one this past spring.
The only thing missing has been a regional championship.
Barring any summer weather setbacks, offseason workouts can only help get the Marauders closer to seizing the elusive as the boys open the 2015-16 school season first next month.
Led by senior returnees Brendon Ware and Matt Hays and junior Ryan Beck, the team looks to improve on its 13-6 record from last year.
“We expect big things from those guys, and they’ve been doing the junior team tennis. It makes it a lot easier to come out here when you’ve been playing for six weeks, even if it’s on just on a Tuesday night,” Muterspaugh said.
“When we’re walking in and it’s Aug. 3 and your first match is Aug. 18, that’s just not enough time anymore to have a team ready to go.
“If you’re not working in the summer, you’re fighting an uphill battle.”