NEW PALESTINE — With great success comes considerable expectation, but the key to handling both, New Palestine head tennis coach Des Evans says, lies in the approach.
The pressures often associated with winning are minimized or contrarily maximized based on perspective, Evans emphasizes — looking too far ahead can tighten your grip too much.
With their third-year coach’s philosophy in mind, the defending Hancock County and sectional champions are embracing the 2017 season with soft hands and deliberate focus.
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“I give them sub goals and specific things to aim at to ensure that they are motivated,” Evans said. “In terms of getting to the net more, getting more first serves in, putting away short balls, and ending the point. If you key on the performance and you’re not afraid to lose, then the results will take care of themselves.
“A lot kids can play tight because they’re focused on winning instead of their performance. I think they’re very geared to the process.”
With all but two starters returning from their 17-4 campaign last fall, the Dragons are not only poised, they’re dedicated to potentially reach another level.
As a group, the team captured their seventh straight county championship last year and welcome back one individual champion in junior Matthew True at No. 1 singles.
Over the summer, True, a standout on both the tennis and basketball courts, committed to his development and brings an even more polished game for his third consecutive season at varsity singles.
At 19-4 as a sophomore, True won the Southern Indiana Open conducted in New Albany last month and was runner-up during a tournament at Lawrence North.
Junior Carson Gavin, who returns to No. 2 singles, also competed in offseason tournaments along with sophomore Ben Blachly, who steps into No. 3 singles for the Dragons. Blachly played No. 1 singles for the junior varsity team last season.
“For us to compete at the regional level, I said to them that more of our players had to play year round and more of our players had to play tournaments because all the top teams and top players do,” Evans said. “That’s if you really want to contend. I think they want to.”
The Dragons won their fifth straight sectional title in 2016, defeating Greenfield-Central 3-2 in the finals at Mt. Vernon before facing No. 28 Lawrence North in the North Central Regional semifinals.
Down 2-1 to Lawrence North, New Palestine led the final two matches with first-set victories. However, they were unable to finish, falling 4-1, which despite the setback was an improvement from their 5-0 loss to Hamilton Southeastern in 2015.
The near-win, Evans said, taught his players a valuable lesson. Winning is a mindset, one achieved with quiet confidence at every step.
“You can win 65 or 60 percent of the points and still win the match. When you do make a mistake or lose a couple of games, don’t panic. Just take it one thing at a time and focus on getting the next one,” Evans said. “That generally tends to work better.”
Savvy helps as well, which the Dragons return despite the loss of two former starters in Patrick Hefferman at No. 3 singles and Tyler Swain at No. 2 doubles.
Swain, a multi-sport athlete, suffered an ankle injury that required surgery, costing him his senior tennis season. Partnered with Nick Rusche in 2016, the tandem went 16-0 and scored the team’s lone regional point.
In place of Swain, Rusche, a senior, is teaming with senior Colby Wagoner at No. 1 doubles. Rusche won the doubles county title in 2016 with Swain.
Senior David Hockett will be paired with his cousin, senior Steven Gutzwiller, who transferred from Triton Central. Gutzwiller helped the Tigers post a 14-4 record in 2016 and win their first sectional title since 2008.
Triton Central pushed New Palestine during the regular season last fall before losing 3-2. Gutzwiller and the Tigers won the Shelby County Tournament, and the newcomer has formed a rapid chemistry with Hockett.
“They’ve played several times, and Nick and Colby beat them in three sets in a tiebreaker in the final set,” Evans said. “So they’re quite close.
“Obviously, having (Hefferman and Swain) back would have given us more depth, if they had been available, but we’ve got two replacements that aren’t too bad.”
The Dragons schedule is equally as impressive with the additions of a dual match with Lapel on Aug. 29 and the Noblesville Invitational on Aug. 26.
“Lapel is No. 2 to Delta in District 4,” Evans said. “We have a few extra matches ahead where they are playing tougher opposition. I’m hoping it will bring the best out of them. I’ve said to them, they have to be prepared to play better players.”
Hoosier Heritage Conference juggernaut Delta, led by hall of fame coach Tim Cleland, will continue to pose a challenge, Evans remarked, along with the county’s ongoing rivalries with Mt. Vernon and Greenfield-Central.
Yet, the Dragons aren’t getting ahead of themselves and don’t plan to until the end.
“I always tell them to not take anything for granted. You have to play it point by point and match by match. Always respect your opponent but play hard,” Evans said. “Our guys have usually been good sports on the court, which I hope they continue to be this year. It’s important. Gabe (Muterspaugh at Mt. Vernon) teaches that approach and so does Tim Cleland.
“I always tell my guys, ‘speak with your racquets.’”
New Palestine Dragons
2016 record: 17-4
2017 key returners: Matthew True (Jr.), Carson Gavin (Jr.), David Hockett (Sr.), Colby Wagoner (Sr.), Nick Rusche (Sr.), Ben Blachly (So.)
Key losses: Tyler Swain (Sr.), Patrick Hefferman (Sr.)
2016 recap: The Dragons continued their dominance in 2016 by winning their seventh consecutive Hancock County team title and their fifth straight sectional championship. Finishing 17-4, the Dragons challenged No. 28 Lawrence North during the North Central Regional semifinals before succumbing 4-1.