Fine-tuning their game: Marauders, Royals ready for action

Gabe Muterspaugh isn’t afraid to admit it. After 21 years of coaching, he wants it all.

Every spring, his girls tennis team routinely comes out and dominates. No more so than this past season as the state-ranked Mt. Vernon Marauders won a third straight Hancock County title and a third consecutive sectional championship at 17-2.

In recent years, however, the boys tennis team hasn’t been so fortunate, losing to New Palestine the past six county tournaments and each postseason since its last sectional title run in 2011.

The solution, Muterspaugh said, is having the right mindset.

“This year, it’s all about finding an identity for us. We’ve got to be scrappers. We’re not going to be able to out-tennis people, but we can outwork and out-hustle people,” Muterspaugh said. “We’re going to be scrapping. We’re going to be clawing. We’re not going to be pretty at times, but that’s where our identity is going to be.”

So far the team has latched onto the idea, committing their preseason practices to muscle memory and wearing down an opponent while frustrating those that won’t surrender willingly.

“To beat us, you’re going to have to battle and be in a dogfight every single night,” Muterspaugh emphasized.

Which dog will be in the fight is a question yet to be answered, according to the veteran coach, who isn’t opposed to “running 48 different lineups” throughout the team’s 22 matches this season.

The Marauders’ tennis roster runs 20 deep, and of the four varsity players back this season, only one is projected to return to his original position from 2015.

Part of the move is by design. The other is dictated by individual drive, especially for senior Ryan Beck, one of the team’s three captains.

Beck started as the team’s No. 2 singles player a year ago, but instead he’s opting to focus on doubles play, where he could team with fellow senior captain Gavin Stamper to create a solid tandem.

“Ryan had a huge year at No. 2 singles, and we’ll see how long the doubles thing goes,” Muterspaugh said. “He’s such a good tennis player, he may be moved to either two or one (singles), but we’ll see. He’s such a freak athlete, he can win anywhere. A lot of it will depend on how everything pans out.”

Stamper was part of Mt. Vernon’s third-place No. 1 doubles team at county last fall, along with senior Wilken Baldwin. However, Baldwin, a former Heritage Christian transfer, is moving to No. 1 singles.

“He has played a ton of tennis in the offseason, and I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Muterspaugh said. “He one of our captains, too.”

Sophomore Brayden Browning is potentially jumping up from junior varsity doubles to No. 2 varsity singles, but the No. 3 singles spot remains an open competition for the Marauders. Senior Nathan Grandstaff, a doubles player last year, is in the mix for singles and so is former JV No. 1 singles player Matthew McCullough, a junior.

Grandstaff ranks second in his class and could be another valedictorian for Mt. Vernon tennis program, a valued trait in the Marauders’ “out think them” philosophy.

At No. 2 doubles, Muterspaugh is intrigued by the talents of sophomores J.D. Cohee and Sam Frye. Seniors Brendon Pratt and Henry Werking, JV players in 2015, are contending for the spots as well.

“Our challenge matches could be more difficult than our matches in season just because we have almost 10 guys that we can go to,” Muterspaugh said. “It’s a good problem to have, but a lot of them don’t have a lot of experience, so that’s where we might get caught up early.”

The goal is winning late, however, as the Marauders are fine tuning their game to challenge New Palestine and Greenfield-Central.

New Palestine won its sixth straight county title under new head coach Des Evans and captured a fourth consecutive sectional by eliminating Mt. Vernon 3-2, marking the fourth year the Marauders have lost in the state tournament to their top rival.

“I think it’s going to be one of the most competitive years that I’ve been around in a while. New Pal is going to be loaded. Greenfield has a talented core group,” Muterspaugh said. “It’s going to be a learning process for us this year. We’re going to learn on the fly, but by the end, I think we’ll be ready, will be competing for a sectional title and that’s all I want.”

EASTERN HANCOCK

Tom Huff is looking to shake things up this fall. In his first year as head coach of the Eastern Hancock boys tennis team, Huff wants the focus to be on the present and future — not the past.

The best way to get his point across to the players this preseason, he said, is by tearing up 2015, including the idea of incumbents.

All seven varsity spots are wide open leading up to the team’s first match Aug. 16, Huff said, and for good reason. Mother Nature has them slightly behind schedule.

“We’re still playing right now, so I don’t have a set lineup yet. We were going to start on Thursday, but it rained, so we didn’t start until this last Friday,” Huff said. “We’re going to finish out this week, and I’m hoping to have a lineup set by next week.”

The additional practice time is welcomed by Huff, who intends to evaluate every one of his 11 players to arrange a solid group, top to bottom.

Huff, 40, took over the Royals’ girls tennis team in the spring, so he’s more than familiar with the area’s competitive landscape. The Morristown graduate expects nothing less during the boys tennis season.

“There’s a lot of good talent, especially for the girls in the spring, in the county,” said Huff, who played three years of doubles tennis at Morristown. “There are a lot of good players with the girls and boys.”

Huff started coaching the Eastern Hancock middle school program last year and in the spring he coached his daughter Kayla on the girls varsity team. Taking over for Erin Wolski, who led the tennis teams for five years, Huff wants to keep things moving forward.

The Royals jumped from a 10-6 record to 12-7 with Wolski at the helm in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Last year, they finished 9-8.

“If we can throw in two or three extra wins on that total, I would be happy,” Huff said.

The catalyst to a winning record will hinge on the team’s four upperclassmen. Seniors Corbin Jennings and Tony Cape are both contending for singles spots. Junior Duncan Cherry, who has started at No. 1 singles in the past, is projected to be one or two.

Junior Jack Smith, who started at No. 2 doubles in 2015, has the potential to move up at No. 1 doubles.

Cherry and Jennings will settle their final placements over the next few days.

“Between those two there’s going to be a battle for the No. 1 spot,” Huff said. “Both of them have played since their freshman year.

“After that there is a lot of talent that is close. There are going to be a lot of close challenge matches, basically from the third spot to the sixth spot. It’s going to be pretty tight.”

Cape was a doubles player last season, but his experience could lead him to a singles spot with four sophomores and three freshmen coming up through the program.

“It’s going to help. We have players to build on, and we hope to keep building as we go,” Huff commented on the team’s large underclassmen depth. “I know we have around three or four that will move up eighth grade to freshman next year, so it should keep snowballing as it goes to build a program.”


Mt. Vernon

Coach: Gabe Muterspaugh (21st year)

2015 Recap: The Marauders found themselves a step behind New Palestine at every turn last season. They finished runner-up to the Dragons at the Hancock County Tournament and lost a narrow 3-2 dual during the regular season. Mt. Vernon eventually ran into their rival once more during the sectional finals and lost another hard-fought 3-2 match. It marked the fourth straight year New Palestine eliminated the program from the postseason since 2011. Mt. Vernon finished with a record of 13-5.

Leading the Way: Four senior starters anchor the revamped Marauders in 2016. Among them is 2015 Hancock County runner-up Ryan Beck, who is shifting from singles to doubles to strengthen the team’s lineup. Nathan Grandstaff and Wilken Baldwin are all competing for singles spots after placing third in the county at doubles last fall. Gavin Stamper returns at No. 1 doubles.

Key Returners: Ryan Beck (12), Nathan Grandstaff (12), Gavin Stamper (12), Wilken Baldwin (12).

Eastern Hancock

Coach: Tom Huff (1st year)

2015 Recap: The Eastern Hancock Royals battled to a 9-8 finish in 2015, losing six matches by three points or less. They were fourth at the Hancock County Tournament and third at the Eastern Hancock Invitational. One of the team’s key wins was 3-2 against rival Knightstown. Their season came to a close at the Mt. Vernon Sectional in the semifinals, after drawing a first-round bye, as they lost 5-0 to eventual champion New Palestine.

Leading the Way: While the 2016 team’s final lineup is yet to set, said new head coach Tom Huff, the competition is fierce at singles with junior Duncan Cherry and senior Corbin Jennings eyeing the No. 1 role. Cherry won five matches at the No. 1 spot a year ago while Jennings floated from No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles for six wins overall. Regardless how things unfold this preseason, Huff will look to both for leadership and energy in his first season at the helm.

Key Returners: Duncan Cherry (11), Corbin Jennings (12), Tony Cape (12), Jack Smith (11).

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Rich Torres is sports editor at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com or 317-477-3227.