Losing five starters to graduation would have most tennis coaches worried, but Des Evans is more confident than ever.
Through the preseason, several talented up-and-coming players have emerged, the second-year New Palestine boys coach said, and matching, if not topping, the program’s 20-2-1 record from 2015 isn’t out of the question.
“We’re going to have a balanced and very strong team, stronger than last year,” Evans said. “Interesting, we don’t have any seniors at all.”
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Built for the present and the future, the Dragons are turning to sophomore Matthew True and junior David Hockett for leadership. Both were members of the program’s Hancock County and sectional championship roster from last fall.
Both excelled for the Dragons, which captured a fourth straight sectional title and a sixth consecutive county crown with their senior-laden roster.
True, who started at No. 2 singles as a freshman, is moving up to No. 1 singles, a logical decision after he went 21-2. At one point, the headstrong competitor was victorious in 19 straight matches between defeats.
“Matthew’s biggest asset is his grit and determination in a match situation,” Evans said. “He is much better in a match situation than in a practice situation, which is good.”
The secret to True’s success was composure, something he mastered while working with Evans, a tennis pro at the Indianapolis Racquet Club, prior to making the leap to the high school level.
His newfound approach paid dividends as he prevailed in several close matches in big situations, including during the team’s regular season, county and sectional matchups with Mt. Vernon.
New Palestine edged past their rivals 3-2 in two dual scenarios.
“(True) did really well last year because prior to that he used to throw his racquet and perform, so I managed to put a stop to that,” Evans said. “He did very well considering the past he had of boiling over on the court. He’s looking to be our No. 1.”
Hockett was a county champion at No. 2 doubles with Conner Page last year, but he could move into the vacant No. 3 singles spot. If he stays at doubles, a new partner could surface from a pool of six hopeful first-year starters.
Nick Rusche, a junior, is a potential replacement for Page, along with former junior varsity No. 1 doubles partner and county champion junior Tyler Swain.
Patrick Heffernan, a junior transfer from Beech Grove, is projected to compete as a doubles player after spending time at singles for the Hornets.
Junior Colby Wagoner, who started at No. 2 singles on JV in 2015, is vying for a doubles spot as well as a pair of incoming freshman from Doe Creek Middle School in Jack Speigel and Ben Blachley, who trains at IRC.
Sophomore Carson Gavin is penciled in at No. 2 singles for the varsity team after winning county at No. 1 singles for the JV as a freshman.
“There are a number of guys going for the No. 3 singles spot. Basically, what we’ve got is nine guys going for seven positions on varsity,” Evans said.
Regardless of how the final lineup unfolds, Evans believes the team can make things less interesting through efficiency. In seven matches last season, the Dragons won seven by a 3-2 margin and were runner-up in the Hoosier Heritage Conference. The Dragons lone losses were to Delta and Hamilton Southeastern at regional.
“People might say 20-2 is difficult to top, but I’m not looking at it like that. It promises to be a good season,” Evans said. “I don’t see a target on New Pal. In any sport you play, you have to go out there and do your best. I tell my players, go play your match, do your best and no nonsense. If there is any nonsense, then you won’t play the next match.”
To call their 3-2 loss in the sectional semifinals last year against Mt. Vernon disappointing would be an understatement. Instead, for Greenfield-Central second-year head coach Michael Turpin and the Cougars, it’s a starting point.
“Ever since then it’s been the same goal. We’re not doing that again,” Turpin said. “We have our eyes set on the sectional title. We’re gunning for it. We have a lot of work to put in between now and then, but at the end of the day that’s where we want to be. We don’t want to come up short again.”
The Cougars surged as the temperatures dropped a year ago, tying Mt. Vernon 2-2 in their sectional match before losing, which was a vast improvement from their 4-1 loss during the regular season.
However, a glimpse at what could be this fall was revealed at the Hancock County Tournament as the Cougars were a competitive third and won the junior varsity team title.
Losing only three starters from their 2015 varsity lineup, the Cougars return four at three premier spots. Another reason for optimism is the shedding of the interim label from Turpin’s title after he was promoted from assistant coach to the head job with Ryan Smith stepping down last July.
Turpin, the third coach in three years for the Cougars, guided his alma mater to a 12-12 record in his first season, an improvement from their 8-11 finish in 2014.
“It was definitely nice going into this season, knowing all summer I was going to be in charge of them. It gave me plenty of time to plan, prepare and be ready,” Turpin said.
The same was true for his players, who embraced their mentor’s coaching philosophy and put it into practice during the offseason.
Turpin has seen the results firsthand during preseason training, which has made for several highly-competitive battles with some final spots yet to be determined.
“Zak (Lawhorn) and Nate (Real) have both been working pretty hard this summer and they are both battling for the No. 1 spot,” Turpin said. “No matter how that ends up, it’s going to be a very strong combination.”
Lawhorn, one of the team’s six seniors, was No. 1 singles last year, finishing runner-up in the county. Real, a senior, started at No. 2 singles and gained confidence late, winning his last match during the nip-and-tuck sectional finale.
Kyle Willis, a senior, is set at No. 3 singles while his brother and former JV No. 1 doubles partner, Kole, a junior, has secured the nod at No. 2 doubles.
“I had a lot of guys out getting better this summer, so everyone in their spot has earned it so far,” Turpin said. “It doesn’t mean it isn’t open to change through challenge matches or anything. That brings a competitive nature.”
Seniors Saben Fletcher and Dylan Wilburn have cemented themselves at No. 1 doubles where they were county runner-ups in 2015, unless another tandem can push them out.
Noah Mohler, a sophomore, is pressing to start at No. 2 doubles along with Kole Willis.
Brad McDowell, a sophomore, has made tremendous strides, Turpin said, after winning county at No. 3 JV singles last year. Mason Bussel is another sophomore that could find his way into the lineup, in addition to senior Chris Wu, who played some varsity three singles.
“Last season made a huge difference for us. I said a year ago, we weren’t coming in under anyone’s radar, but by the end of the season we were going to be a tough team,” Turpin said. “I think this year, we’re coming out as the team to beat, to be honest.”
Motivated to get back to their 17-7 days of 2013 and 18-6 record in 2014, the Cougars are pushing toward rekindling two past traditions as well.
“The goal is to make (winning) a long term thing. We talked about it at the beginning of the season. The guys team hasn’t won county since 2005, according to our banners outside. And I know we haven’t won sectional since 2007,” Turpin said. “It’s something that needs to be done.”