Five tennis teams to watch, courtesy Matt Daniels
TYLER ELLIS has familiarized himself with the various Chicago suburbs that host the state meet. That’s because the Vikings senior has qualified for state each of his first three seasons in doubles play.
Danville coach ERIC FREE only has three seniors — Ellis, TRAVIS BROWN and MARK DENMAN — on his 19-man roster this season. Hence why it’s important for the Vikings to have someone like Ellis, who has posted a combined 3-6 record in his career at state with partners LOGAN NELSON (2012), MATT KIDWELL (2011) and RYAN DYAR (2010).
Free said Ellis will team up with Nelson, a junior, for a large chunk of the season before gearing up for sectional play.
“It’s really huge to have him out there for us,” Free said of Ellis, who also will see time at No. 1 singles. “Right now, we’re pretty young. To have him there with his experience, he’s able to mentor and help those young guys out. They get to see him working hard every day. That sends a positive message.”
Aside from Ellis, Brown and Nelson, Free expects contributions from freshman CODY BUSH and junior JACKSON MALLADAY in singles action.
“Last year we had a lot of seniors,” Free said. “We lost four seniors that were our three through six guys from last season. We lost four or five across the program. It’s different, but at the same time, with the younger guys, it’s fun. They work just as hard as the older guys.”
SCOTT DAVIS brought his snow shovel to early-season practices.
No one could fault the Maroons coach for his advanced planning.
The wintry-like weather in the first week of spring didn’t lend itself to many outdoor practices for Central, but the Maroons can take solace in having AUSTIN ATEN at their disposal, along with the warmer temperatures.
Aten, the All-Area Player of the Year as a freshman, returns after a promising sophomore season ended with a state berth, his second straight year where he won at least three matches at state.
“We’re excited to have him back,” Davis said of his top singles player. “He’s one of the better players in East Central Illinois. He’s serving it a little better and is getting more pop on his first serve. It looks like his consistency has improved.”
Aten is one of many underclassmen Davis has on his 30-man roster. Junior GABE MITCHELL and sophomore MICHAEL YOO are two players who could step into the roles left after RYAN SMITH and SAM WAMPLER graduated off last year’s squad.
“We’ve got a young squad, but our philosophy is we don’t cut players,” Davis said. “We want to give them an opportunity to have some beginners learn a new sport. As long as they want to come out and play and commit to what we’re doing, we keep them. It gets a little crowded at times, but we want to give them the best experience we can.”
The Chargers have two players — SUNNY SINGH and MAX ZHENG — veteran coach DON WAYBRIGHT can turn to for No. 1 singles matches.
Problem is making sure both are healthy.
Singh, last year’s All-Area Player of the Year, is dealing with an inflamed pectoral muscle that has caused him distress and an inability to serve overhand for much of the past week while Zheng rolled his ankle in a dual match against Danville two weeks ago.
“We’ll get them both healthy soon, though,” said Waybright, who is optimistic Singh can return this Saturday for a doubles tournament in Decatur. “They’re just minor setbacks.”
Singh finished 2-2 at last year’s state meet, and Waybright is confident Singh and Zheng can form quite the doubles tandem when either is not competing at the top two singles spots for the Chargers.
“They’re extremely good players,” said Waybright, who is back in his third decade coaching Centennial after GORDON KAY assumed the coaching gig for the 2012 season. “Most of the time, they’ve been playing singles, but we’re experimenting with them in doubles this year to see if we can put two quality players to make a really good doubles team and make a state run.”
Aside from Singh and Zheng, Centennial — which is 4-0 in dual meets heading into today’s scheduled meet against Urbana — is counting on PETER KIM, ANDREW SCAGGS, PATRICK KEARNEY and DANIEL O’BRIEN to produce on the court.
“We’ve got a lot of depth,” Waybright said. “There’s a lot of talent on this team, and even my four, five and six singles players are very strong. I think we can make a good showing at the conference meet and get most of our team to state.”
First-year coach CHRIS GRATKINS doesn’t have any seniors on his 13-man roster.
But Gratkins isn’t worried as the former Urbana assistant tries to rebuild the program.
“Our junior class has been a real fun group,” Gratkins said of the six he has to work with. “They all love to play the game. They’re very willing to learn. They all get out and hit on their own time.”
SAMI MESSAI is Urbana’s top singles player, and one Gratkins hopes his other players look at for guidance.
“He started playing in (middle school), and he would start to bug the other players to go out and hit with him,” Gratkins said. “He’s a strong baseline player, and we have high hopes for him.”
Fellow juniors MATT PETERSON and AKENA SPONSLAR, along with freshman NATE HORNER, are some other players Urbana — which is 0-4 in dual meets heading into today’s match against Centennial — is counting on this spring in singles action.
MACIO ZELIP and CHANG HEE LEE make up a doubles team that could prove formidable to other opponents.
“They’re very active on the court,” Gratkins said. “They’ve really got a great attitude to the game. They don’t ever get down emotionally.”
Even with the unflattering dual meet record so far, Gratkins is trying to build up a squad that is lean on experience but has potential.
“We’ve gone to a couple Illinois matches to watch and learn this spring, and the guys are picking up what they’ve seen,” Gratkins said. “I’ve really tried to have them focus in on learning the game and being aware of what’s going on around them on the court.”
Urbana Uni High
For the first time in school history, the Illineks will field a varsity team. And they aren’t hurting for numbers.
Coach DAVE BERGANDINE has 28 players out for Uni High, a dramatic increase from the roughly eight to 10 players the school would have when it was a club sport.
“Interest is definitely up,” Bergandine said. “We’ve got some real solid athletes out there.”
Chief among them are seniors ALEX MESTRE and EDO ROTH.
The doubles tandem will aim for its fourth straight state appearance after stellar postseason runs each of the last two years. The duo advanced to the quarterfinals of last year’s state tournament before suffering a loss and is a combined 11-6 so far in its prep career at state.
“Both of them are coming in healthy and in real good spirits mentally,” Bergandine said. “They are great models in terms of their work ethic and incredible ability. Any time I want someone to see how I want a shot to be done, they can do it a dozen times in a row. That’s always great to have. It’s kind of like having two extra ball machines out there because they can put the ball anywhere I want them to.”
Bergandine said he’s always expecting steady contributions from FREDDIE STAVINS, NATHAN BEAUCHAMP and DIEGO GUNDERSON, among others, this spring for Uni High.
“They have improved in skill over the last year,” Bergandine said. “We have some pretty decent depth and are on pretty solid footing.”