CHARLOTTESVILLE — It had been 11 years since Eastern Hancock’s boys tennis program had won a conference title.
That stretch without a league title ended last season.
The Eastern Hancock Royals were 2019 Mid-Eastern Conference champions. They had won eight conference titles from 1996-2008, as members of the White River Athletic Conference, including seven in a nine-year span from 1996-2004.
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Whether the Royals can put together that kind of dominance over a long period of time remains to be seen. They are on the right track, as this year’s club is extremely talented and have rackets pointed in the right direction to be back-to-back winners.
“I’d like to see us pull out the conference again, and I’d like to see us step up in the county,” coach Tom Huff said.
The Royals had improved one spot in the MEC each year during Huff’s leadership. In his fifth season, Huff’s team placed third in the MEC in 2017 and runner-up in 2018. His initial season, 2016, the Royals did not play in a conference.
The Royals were 7-7 in duals last year, too. The most wins and first .500-or-better season since the team went 9-8 in 2015.
The reason there is optimism for more wins and another conference crown is the return of the majority of last year’s lineup.
Coach Huff’s son, Kodey Huff, leads a trio of returning singles players. Huff was 11-9 last year and the defending MEC champion. He also earned all-county honors by reaching the No. 1 singles championship, falling to New Palestine’s Ben Blachly, the 2019 Hancock County Player of the Year. Blachly has since graduated.
Coach Huff believes player Huff could be a contender for the county title. For now, the younger Huff is holding off his own teammates.
The team’s only senior, Huff is starting to get pushed by sophomore Zeke Dixon, who has currently moved up to No. 2 after playing all of last season at No. 3 singles. Dixon had the best record of any Royal last year, going 13-6.
Junior Nolan Stout was 10-10 at No. 2 last year. He recently lost a close challenge match to Dixon, but a rematch could be in the works.
“Our singles are pretty much set,” coach Huff said of the top-three spots. It’s probably the best singles group I’ve coached. We’ll have to see what happens.”
The Royals’ lost just two to graduation, Sammy Blocher and Brady Smith. Blocher paired with returnee Bryce Wennen, now a sophomore, to win an MEC title at No. 2 doubles. They were 7-5 at the spot last year. Smith also played doubles, primarily at No. 1.
Wennen is another top returnee. He combined to go 10-10 overall, splitting his time at the two doubles positions.
Junior Nate Cape is another addition to the returnee list. He played in five varsity matches last year, seeing time at both doubles spots and at No. 3 singles.
Peyton Stephens is a sophomore who played junior varsity last season. He should be in the mix to play some doubles, too, along with freshman newcomer Griffin Lawrence. Junior Wyatt Sutton joined the team late last week and has also impressed Huff.
“Singles will be where we are strongest this season,” coach Huff added. “We’ll be counting on them to do well.
“We’ll have to be consistent. No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 will have to play hard and hopefully doubles will play well enough to pull out some wins.”
Huff has added a new, but familiar face to the coaching staff. Chris Zeilinga, who was an all-conference player for Eastern Hancock in the mid-late 1990s, has joined the staff. He had previously been an assistant coach at Mt. Vernon.
The Royals open the season Monday at home, against one of their MEC foes, Randolph Southern. They’ll get a chance to defend their title early as the conference tournament is scheduled for Aug. 29 at Shenandoah. First serves are at 9 a.m.
They’ll get their swings against the larger-enrollment schools when they take on county rivals at the Hancock County Tournament slated for Sept. 12 at New Palestine. Another big event prior to the post season is the Eastern Hancock Invitational scheduled for Sept. 26. Included in this season’s event are Blackford, Lapel and Oldenburg Academy.