FORTVILLE — In 22 years of coaching, Mt. Vernon’s Gabe Muterspaugh has never seen anything like it. Whenever the Marauders head tennis coach walks out to the courts for practice, there is rarely an open court.

With 29 players on his roster, position battles are a given, and with it is a wave building to compete for the present and the future.

“When we go out there, every court is filled, which is pretty cool to see,” Muterspaugh remarked. “It’s fun, and they are all buying in which is fun.”

The real pleasure, Muterspaugh said, is the process, which has taken precedent more so than ever before in his tenure.

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Losing four starters from his sectional lineup due to graduation, 1 through 5 will have a new look this fall — and it could be an ongoing rotation base on performance.

“With all of the guys that graduated, this is one of the first years, we have a new guy in every spot from last year,” Muterspaugh said. “Which is good and bad. The unknown is sometimes scary, but it’s also very exciting to work with lumps of coal, as I like to say, and see if we can develop diamonds.”

The key is pressure — how the players embrace it, learn from it and apply it to their games. After finishing 12-7 last year, the Marauders are determined to keep moving forward, and Muterspaugh said he believes his team’s youthful lineup is eager to push every match.

“One thing we talk about is we’re not going to out talent teams, but we certainly don’t want teams to beat us because they out worked us,” Muterspaugh said. “In tennis, you don’t always have to be the best player in the world. You can be the hardest working to beat guys better than you because a lot of guys don’t want to work.

“At the end of the day, you have to have heart. That’s what we want to see.”

Leadership this season fall on the squad’s lone senior Matthew McCullough, who is vying for a varsity spot after seeing time at No. 2 singles last season. As a junior, McCullough jumped from junior varsity doubles in 2015 to varsity singles last fall.

Junior Sam Frye, who played No. 1 doubles in 2016, is moving up to No. 2 singles, while sophomore Jackson Dunlavy is following a similar path as McCullough.

A doubles player at the junior varsity level as a freshman, Dunlavy has impressed this preseason and is aiming at the No. 3 singles spot.

“He went to North Central all summer and has had the most improvement by a kid I’ve ever had in a short one year season,” Muterspaugh said. “He’s going to be fighting to move up through the year. He’s that type of kid. He’s a good athlete that can run all day and head strong.”

Junior J.D. Cohee, who worked into the 2016 lineup, is penciled in at No. 1 singles.

At doubles, junior Brayden Browning and McCullough are teaming up to give the lineup a boost at either No. 1 or No. 2 depending how the preseason shakes out.

“Browning is the kid I’ve talked a lot about over the past few years and I’ve put a lot of pressure on him. He’s worked really hard in the offseason and he has all the skill in the world to be a good doubles player for us,” Muterspaugh said.

The other doubles tandem in development links classmates and friends Peyton Meadors, a rising basketball talent, and Sam McCarty, an up-and-coming baseball player. Meadors, who stands at nearly 6-foot-4, brings energy, Muterspaugh said, which is a well-needed commodity.

“They’re going to be my team that I love and hate all at the same time,” Muterspaugh joked. “They’re uber athletic, but are they total tennis players? No, but I can work with that. They’re going to be fun to watch.”

Behind the team’s projected starters are a handful of youngsters eager to break the lineup. Freshmen Chris Hays and Dallas Turner along with sophomores Reece Powell, Justin Lemke and John Huser could see time.

“With 29 guys on the team, we have a lot of guys that would be ready to have an opportunity,” Muterspaugh said. “I’ve got some freshmen and sophomores that could jump in there at any time.

“We are extremely overall young, but it’s going to be a fun season of growth.”

In recent years, the Marauders have lost to New Palestine in the past seven county tournaments, including a runner-up finish last fall. In the postseason since Mt. Vernon’s last sectional title run in 2011, the team has lost to either New Palestine or Greenfield-Central.

Muterspaugh and the team understand the challenge ahead, but they aren’t backing down.

“The New Palestine kids all being back, they’re going to be as solid as can be,” Muterspaugh said. “They reload, get kids from the middle school that are stepping, and that’s what we’re striving for here.

“We have to get better. That’s the bottom line. I don’t like where we’re at and our guys don’t like it. We don’t like looking up.”

Breakdown

Marauders Breakdown

Mt. Vernon Marauders

2016 record: 12-7

2017 key returners: J.D. Cohee (Jr.), Sam Frye (Jr.), Peyton Meadors (Jr.), Brayden Browning (Jr.), Matt McCullough (Sr.)

Key losses: Ryan Beck, Wilken Baldwin, Brendan Pratt, Gavin Stamper

2016 recap: The Mt. Vernon Marauders opened the season 9-0 before finishing 12-7 on the year. Runner-up to New Palestine in the Hancock County Tournament, the Marauders faced Greenfield-Central in their own sectional semifinals and lost 4-1 after beating the Cougars 3-2 during the regular season.

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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.