GREENFIELD — When asked for his projected starting lineup for the 2017 season, Greenfield-Central boys tennis coach Michael Turpin reacted with a purposeful volley.
There are still questions to be answered for Turpin’s Cougars with the season opener a week away and the team’s preseason scrimmage set for today at home against Beech Grove.
“We graduated five starters from last year, so there are a lot of spots that have yet to be filled. We’re trying to figure out the best way to set everybody up,” said Turpin, who is entering his third season at the helm. “This year, it’s a mindset of being flexible, playing whichever spot will help us out and being scrappy and doing what we need to do to get our wins.”
So far everyone seems to be buying into that, Turpin added, as he analyzes his 15-man team roster daily for the right mix.
Story continues below gallery
Gone from last year’s sectional runner-up varsity team are all three singles players in Zak Lawhorn, Nate Real and Kyle Willis, who each graduated this past spring.
Another subtraction due to graduation comes at No. 1 doubles, which cuts the deepest with Saben Fletcher and Dylan Wilburn now off at college after dominating as two-time individual sectional winners the past two seasons.
Fletcher and Wilburn’s gritty confidence and chemistry drove the Cougars surge from an 8-11 record in 2014 to 12-12 the next season and 8-8 a year ago as the area was plagued with consistent rain outs and unpredictability.
“That combo of Saben and Dylan will be hard to replace for sure,” Turpin said. “I need to find a strong compatibility in that spot like they had.”
Fortunately, Turpin has several candidates in place to fill the voids. With one senior in Kole Willis, who started at No. 2 doubles as a junior, and five juniors all vying for positions, there are a plethora of possibilities.
“I have a lot of guys that want to play singles this year, and obviously, I only have three varsity spots for that, so it’s going to be where I can find that chemistry for some doubles teams,” Turpin said. “You basically have five guys that want to play singles in three spots, so they’re all working hard to earn those three spots. They all want them. I have the tough part to decide.”
Among the challengers for the varsity’s top three singles spots are Willis, and juniors Mason Bussel, Bradley McDowell, Steven Roland, Sam Galyean, and Garrett McKee.
Bussel slid into the No. 1 singles spot last fall when Lawhorn was sidelined for the postseason due to an infection in his hand. Bussel along with Willis and his No. 2 doubles partner, McDowell, powered the Cougars past Mt. Vernon 4-1 in the sectional semifinals to avenge their 3-2 loss during the regular season.
The Cougars lost to New Palestine in the sectional finals 3-2. The Dragons also defeated Greenfield-Central 3-2 in the 2016 regular season.
“The good news is we know who they are to an extent. Obviously, you put in work in the offseason, so I’m sure they got better than they were last year,” Turpin remarked on New Palestine, which has won seven straight county titles and five consecutive sectional championship.
“But we have an idea of what their positions are, who their players are, what they hit like and where we need to be to reach that level. You only have to beat three spots to get the win, so find our three.”
One of those three, Turpin said, could be Willis, the team’s senior captain. The front runner for the No. 1 singles spot this preseason, Willis has the talent to move up and excel.
“He’s put in quite a bit of work in the offseason and you can tell just watching him at practice that he’s a completely different person than he was last year,” Turpin said. “He’s come quite a long way. He’s gotten in pretty good and is ready to play full matches. As far as I’m concerned, whichever spot he tries out for whether doubles or singles he’s probably going to be my top guy wherever he goes.”
Bussel and McDowell bring the most experience to the team’s final auditions before the Cougars open the year on Tuesday at home against Scecina Memorial.
Sophomore Colin Hunt and Kane Bradley provide additional depth.
“With one senior it gives us some time to keep growing and keep working and whatever we figure out this season, we should be able to keep running with it for another season or even two,” Turpin said. “Obviously, the focus is right now and trying to improve on last year.”
2016 Record: 8-8
Key Returners: Kole Willis (Sr.), Mason Bussel (Jr.), Bradley McDowell (Jr.), Steven Roland (Jr.), Sam Gaylean (Jr.), Garrett McKee (Jr.)
Key Losses: Zak Lawhorn, Nate Real, Kyle Willis, Saben Fletcher, Dylan Wilburn
2016 Recap: The Cougars placed third during the rain-delayed Hancock County Tournament behind Mt. Vernon and defending champion New Palestine. The tandem of Saben Fletcher and Dylan Wilburn earned their first individual county title and later qualified for the individual state finals. The team defeated Mt. Vernon 4-1 in the sectional semifinals before losing to New Palestine 3-2 in the finals.