FORTVILLE — In his 21st season at the helm, Gabe Muterspaugh tried his best to craft the perfect veteran-coaching response.
When asked how his Mt. Vernon girls tennis team is approaching tonight’s Hancock County Tournament on its home court and a potential fourth straight championship, he went admittedly ho-hum.
“Boy, that was a lot of coach speak wasn’t it?,” Muterspaugh laughed following an unusually bland reply. “Wipe that all out.”
Shifting back into his characteristic “Muter-mode,” what rolled off his tongue next fell more into line.
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“We want to send a message. This is a message sender for sectional. The season matches always are. When we step on the court, you better bring your A-plus game because we’re going to be ready to go,” Muterspaugh said.
Willing to place the target squarely on his program’s back, Muterspaugh doesn’t typically mince words. He believes in them fully, just as he does in his team’s ability to make good on them.
Last season, his team finished 17-2 on the year and won it’s third straight sectional title and sixth in eight attempts. The Marauders’ three-peated as county champions without surrendering a single match for a second year in a row.
The team’s expectations for this spring haven’t faded, especially against their county and sectional foes: Greenfield-Central, New Palestine and Eastern Hancock.
“If we come out and play Mt. Vernon tennis, outworking everyone and imposing our will on them, it should be ours. But you have to play it. On paper we look great, but New Pal is much improved. Greenfield, those girls worked hard in the offseason,” Muterspaugh said. “If we do what we’re suppose to do, we should take care of business.”
Through six events since the season opener on April 11, the Marauders have run in the black.
The team is 4-1 in dual matches, losing only to No. 17 Delta 4-1 on Wednesday. They won their own invitational last weekend and are ranked 27th in the state by the Indiana High School Tennis Coaches Association.
Mt. Vernon cracked the state rankings last year at 28th, the first time since 2004 the Marauders were in the top 30, but wins aren’t based on votes received, Muterspaugh emphasized.
“That’s just a number. We still have to go out every night and play,” he said. “Our girls are focused. I’m pumped. Looking at the schedule and county, I don’t think we should lose another match throughout as long as we bring it every night.”
Junior Alaina Nelson, an all-state honorable mention in 2016, enters the count tournament as the front-runner at No. 1 singles, along with nearly every spot for the Marauders.
With a 6-2 record, Nelson moved up to the No. 1 role after going 21-4 as a sophomore No. 2 singles player. At No. 2 singles this season, Olivia Spicer, who was 23-2 at No. 3 singles a year ago, is 6-2 as well.
“She’s grown, she’s gotten stronger and her shots are heavy now,” Muterspaugh remarked on Nelson’s game. “Olivia made the natural progression, too. If we’re doing things right, that’s how you want to get things done. I think we have the best singles players in the county.”
Both Nelson and Spicer are defending county champions. No. 3 singles player Kaleigh Helm, a sophomore newcomer at 6-2, looks to bookend the team’s quest at a sweep.
Mt. Vernon’s No. 2 doubles tandem of senior Maeve McCafferty and junior Sophie Williams are eyeing a county repeat at 8-0 on the year. Senior Emily Annakin and sophomore Maeve Laughlin are 6-2 this year at No. 1 doubles.
If the Marauders’ dominance is disrupted today, New Palestine and Greenfield-Central, which placed third and second, respectively, in last year’s county tournament, could play spoiler.
The New Palestine Dragons were 4-2 on the season as of Wednesday and recently swept their singles matches against Fishers in a 3-2 win.
Amelia Fleetwood, a senior, looks to challenge at No. 1 singles after a runner-up finish in 2016, while Lexi Miller, a senior, will be at No. 2 singles and Ivey Simmons, a junior, is at No. 3 singles.
The Dragons were fourth at the Mt. Vernon Invitational as sophomore Katie Settergren and Josee King, a senior, placed third at No. 1 doubles.
Eastern Hancock showcases a freshman at No. singles in Chelsi McMahan. Junior Kayla Huff is at No. 2 singles and sophomore Taylor Kline is at three singles.
Senior Erin McKeeman and sophomore Cassandra Hannemann form the Royals’ No. 1 doubles team. Freshmen Madison Hagan and Valentina Brooks are at No. 2 doubles.
The Greenfield-Central Cougars carried a 0-3 record through Wednesday, but they narrowly dropped two duals against Warren Central and Morristown 3-2.
Junior Lindsey McCord, who was third at No. 1 singles at county last year, is 2-1 on the season for the Cougars. Avery Spencer, a freshman, has exceeded expectations at No. 2 singles.
Kaleigh Stephenson, a sophomore, was part of the Cougars’ county runner-up No. 2 doubles team in 2016. She is paired with freshman Grace Hall this season.
“We haven’t peaked yet, so to speak, and once we fine tune all of that and get everybody up to where we need to be, I think it will be a different story come sectional than where we are at right now in the season,” Greenfield-Central head coach Michael Turpin said. “The hard part is county comes early in the season, and part of it comes down to where you’re at in the draw.
“But just because someone goes up on you doesn’t mean you buckle. It’s a long two sets to win. No one can win off the first set alone.”
The Cougars were second to Mt. Vernon at sectional as well as county last spring.
Along with the possibility of upsets by the Dragons and Royals to shake up the bracket, which will be drawn today at 4:30 p.m., Turpin believes anything is possible despite the Marauders being the favorite.
“They’ve been on a quite a streak, and obviously, they are sectional champions,” Turpin said. “They have most of their team back, so they are the top team heading into county. I give them respect for that.
“With the draw you never know, though. It’s all about making it to that second round and trying to get a couple of wins in a few spots. You don’t necessarily need to sweep every single spot to get the victory.”
The county tournament begins at 5 p.m with first-round varsity matches. Junior varsity matches will take place before the varsity finals and consolations at approximately 7 p.m.
Pattern of Greatness
Recent girls team tennis county champions
2016 — Mt. Vernon
2015 — Mt. Vernon
2014 — Mt. Vernon
2013 — New Palestine
2012 — New Palestine
2011 — Mt. Vernon
2010 — Mt. Vernon
2009 — Mt. Vernon
2008 — New Palestine
2007 — Greenfield-Central
2006 — New Palestine
2005 (tie) — Eastern Hancock/Mt. Vernon/New Palestine
2004 — Mt. Vernon