Finding Their Game: Royals battle, fall to Bulldogs in sweep

Eastern Hancock singles player Zeke Dixon sets to serve during his match against Lapel at Eastern Hancock High School on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Richard Torres/Daily Reporter)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The goal on Wednesday afternoon for the Eastern Hancock boys tennis team was to course correct after three straight losses.

One problem, though, the visiting Lapel Bulldogs were far from pushovers.

A few days after claiming their eighth consecutive Madison County team title this past weekend, the Bulldogs upheld their District 4 boys tennis ranking, and defeated the host Royals in a sweep, 5-0.

Lapel, which is ranked sixth in the district, won four of their five matches in straight sets against the Royals, except at No. 1 singles where Eastern Hancock junior Zeke Dixon forced a decisive third.

“I put ‘TNP’ on the bottom of my shoes for ‘the next play.’ So, if I look down, I can remember that there’s always another opportunity. Need to move on,” Dixon said. “I want everybody to be in it together. I want everybody to be confident in what they’re doing.

“For myself, I need to focus on the mental part of my game, but it helps when I remind myself, it’s just one point, you can do it.”

That was Dixon’s mentality after dropping the first set to Lapel’s Jacob Erwin, 3-6.

While Royals’ teammates, senior Nolan Stout battled at No. 2 singles before losing to Lapel’s Isaac Bair, 6-1, 7-5, and No. 3 singles freshman Luke Schilling fell to Dakota Kimmerling, 7-5, 6-1, Dixon kept pushing.

“Zeke played very hard. Zeke, I never have to worry about fighting,” Eastern Hancock head coach Chris Zeilinga said. “I haven’t had to since, honestly, he was a freshman. And now, through sophomore and junior year. That kid will fight for every single minute. That’s his M.O.”

Dixon rallied back with a 6-3 win in the second set before losing hold in the third, 1-6, as his legs began to cramp up at the end.

The Royals (2-4) opened the season 2-0 with victories over Randolph Southern on Aug. 16 and Southwestern on Aug. 17.

However, the program lost its first match to Rushville on Aug. 24, and this past Saturday, Hancock County rival Greenfield-Central swept them, 5-0.

The senior-laden New Palestine Dragons also shut out the Royals, 5-0, on Monday before facing Lapel, marking Eastern Hancock’s third match in five days.

They have one more match today at home against Centerville before hosting the Mid-Eastern Conference tournament on Friday.

“It’s a big goal. We want it this year,” Dixon remarked on the MEC title. “It would be awesome to show everybody what’s up.”

The Royals last won the MEC team tennis title in 2019. That championship signified the program’s first in the MEC and first league title since 2008 when it was part of the White River Athletic Conference.

“We talked about gaining momentum going into tomorrow night, and then, I think, we have a pretty good shot at conference,” Zeilinga said. “I like our chances.”

The key for a potential turnaround later this week and possibly a conference title will be controlled aggression on the court from the first serve.

“I thought we had a chance today in the first sets. The first sets, especially, at one and two doubles. At one and three singles, I thought we had a chance,” Zeilinga said. “We just got a little tight at the start of the first set, and Lapel is a good program that’s used to winning. We just kind of backed off, I think. That’s our biggest issue, but we’re gradually getting better.”

Eastern Hancock juniors Bryce Wennen and Peyton Stevens contended in the first set, but Lapel’s Landon Bair and Corbin Renihan powered through, 7-5, 6-0.

Royals’ freshman Myles Wennen and sophomore Griffin Lawrence also showed grit in the first initially, but once again, Lapel dug deeper to prevail as Mason Poynter and Grant Humerickhouse won, 6-4, 6-2.

“We have beefed up our schedule quite a bit this year compared to last year, I and I told the kids, every night is going to be tough. Every night is going to be a battle,” Zeilinga said. “We haven’t figured out that we have to battle from start to finish. We’ll get there.”

The Royals’ aim is to find that approach before Friday and prior to the Hancock County boys tennis tournament at New Palestine on Saturday, Sept. 11.

“(Lapel, New Palestine and Greenfield) are used to winning, so we’re trying to build that where we’re used to winning. Right now, we’re just not quite there yet, but we have that talent. I love our doubles, we just have to play a little bit smarter,” Zeilinga said.

“We see it in flashes. We see it all the time in practice. We need to see it all the time. We just need to get comfortable in matches.”