I approached my second season as head coach with guarded optimism that we could finish with a winning record. We returned every player from our 5-7 team. We also had a good amount of interest from 9th and 10th-grade players who had not been on the team last year. I subbed for a class in the fall semester only to see Kevin in a wheelchair recovering from a soccer-related leg injury. That along with Steve’s high ankle sprain from last season gave me some pause.
While high school practice in Kentucky for the spring sport of tennis starts on February 15th, it is important to note that February 15th is still very much wintertime in the bluegrass state. Our courts were under several inches of snow, but I wanted to do something on the first day so we watched the movie Hoosiers afterschool as a team. It seemed like a good bonding exercise, and since we were trying to have our first winning season in school history, I figured a little inspiration would not hurt either.
2 Pressing Questions
Weather swings in the Ohio River Valley are common, and we were practicing only a few days after our courts were covered with snow. I knew we needed to find an answer at 3rd singles. I expected to have a winning season. Still, we went 5-7 without winning a single point at 3rd singles in 2003. 2004 needed to be different.
My second pressing question was one that was unexpected but generally positive. Tyler’s big serve and powerful forehand were clicking. Steve’s ankle injury had cut into some of his stellar mobility. Should I mess with Tyler and Ryan playing together for 3 years or should I keep things like they were last season? Team chemistry is a funny thing, and generally something I am cautious to change. However, Tyler won a few practice sets against Kevin, and it became clear to me that he could win more points at second singles than Steve could. I felt Steve’s ankle would be less stressed playing doubles, and that he and Ryan could win as many doubles points as Tyler and Ryan would have.
I made the change. Maybe I was crazy to mess with 3 years of patterns in each of their senior years. Maybe I was obsessed with finishing above .500. To their credit, Steve, Ryan, and Tyler all accepted the change well and chemistry was not impacted in any negative way. Kevin benefited as well as Tyler pushed and occasionally beat him at practice.
3rd Singles – Hello Jordan and Alex
A year ago, I had six varsity level players. I had an embarrassment of riches in year two. Sophomores Justin, Andy, and Eric had been on the team a year ago and had improved. I had a duo of freshmen named Evan and Michael who were every bit as good as Justin, Eric, and Andy. Troy and Matt were freshmen who were not bad either. None of this group was ready for the third singles slot, but they were all close to being ready. Unlike last season, I did not need to worry about putting someone in 3rd singles whose confidence might get rattled due to being not quite ready.
I had a dilemma. It was a good one to have to be sure. Jordan was a freshman who played soccer and basketball as well as tennis. He was a great athlete and a lefty. He went on to play division 1 college basketball. Alex was a sophomore who had not played last year due to leg surgery, but who had worked on tennis from the moment his leg recovered. Alex was a cerebral player with great form, and his father had played division 1 college basketball. Both Alex and Jordan were extremely determined and hard to beat.
What should I do? I needed 7, but I now had 8 clear-cut varsity level players. Eventually, I had to let them settle it on the court. Jordan won the 3rd singles spot, but if we had any injuries or illnesses, I had Alex there. This was most reassuring. I also knew we had depth beyond 8 slots. We were reasonably good through 14 players. This made practices better, and players improved faster due to seeing more quality shots come back to them after they hit a shot.
7-0 in a Hurry
We were again on the road for every dual match as the peeling baseline on our home courts had only gotten worse since last season. My concerns about exceeding .500 were ill-founded. We weren’t just beating other schools. We were trouncing them. A school might have one to two outstanding players and grab a point at either of the top two singles slots or in first doubles, but we were winning every dual match either 4-1 or 5-0.
Winning with Depth
Jordan was undefeated at 3rd singles. Michael and Jimmy were undefeated at second doubles. The beauty of it was that we were not stacking. Kevin was generally better than Tyler who was generally better than Jordan. Steve and Ryan generally beat Michael and Jimmy. We were playing everyone straight up, but we did so with a team that was nearly interchangeable.
After varsity matches, we often played extra JV matches or pro-sets. We won most of those as well. Finally, we played two of the weaker opponents on our schedule using numbers 8-14 on our depth chart and swept them 5-0. Alex spearheaded the next 7 after our top 7! I remember having to reassure a few varsity players that the second 7 would win these matches, and they did so without missing a beat. Those two sweeps by our second seven convinced me we were the third deepest team in Northern Kentucky. The other two schools were perennial powers that attracted tennis talent. We had courts that were not suitable for hosting matches. I was proud of the progress all of the players were making.
We were 7-0, but our toughest tests were ahead of us as was the regional tournament.
PS – When we played the school 45 minutes away this season, I must have put the fear of God in my players ahead of time. I was so worried about a repeat of last season’s 3-2 sleepwalking induced nail-biter that we won all 5 matches in under 45 minutes making the commute longer than the actual tennis.