Sunday, Oct 26, 2014
Hernando Christian

Tennis

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Published:   |   Updated: March 7, 2013 at 04:06 PM

For several years now, on both the boys and girls sides, Nature Coast has set the standard for all other county programs to chase.

Five times in the past six seasons, the boys have advanced to regionals. The Lady Sharks have made it out of districts five consecutive campaigns.

Over the previous six years, the two Nature Coast squads have combined to collect seven district championships.

But it's no longer a certainly that the Sharks will rule the local scene.

After all, it was Springstead who in a breakthrough 2012 upended Nature Coast for the boys county crown, though both teams went to regionals as district runners-up.

The Lady Sharks remained county champs, for the fourth time in five years, but the graduation of their top two players leaves them vulnerable.

So with the season set to begin Monday, there appears an unusually high potential for parity in these parts.

No county team appears in a better position than the Springstead boys, a statement that would be hard to believe in the not-too-distant past.

Veteran head coach Joe Nicolai, who took over the Eagles' reigns just prior to the start of last season, picked up where he left off turning the Central girls in a local power.

Not only did Springstead post its finest-ever record of 14-3, it garnered its first county championship and regional berth a year ago.

The Eagles did lose All-County No. 2 singles selection Trevor Whitmill, but retain brothers Patrick and Hank Deslaurier, also All-County picks who went 19-1 and 18-2 respectively at No. 3 and No. 4.

Patrick, a sophomore, and Hank, a junior, will slide up a spot in the lineup behind the returning No. 1, senior Carl Zee.

Likewise, senior Marcel Leaman moves up from five to four, and sophomore Robert Hoover, limited to one match last season, figures to see regular action at No. 5.

However, that is the full extent of the Springstead roster, though that could change shortly.

"We're hoping to do as well as last year," Nicolai said. "Our goal is to win the county and win the district.

"We lose our number two, that hurts a lot. We need somebody to step up in those shoes. But I think we'll fare well."

It took a tiebreaker for Land O' Lakes to knock off the Eagles in the Class 3A, District 6 Tournament last year, and the Gators no longer have the services of Colin Roller, one of the top players in the state prior to his graduation.

So the door could be open for Springstead to take the next step in its startling turnaround.

"I think it's really important," Nicolai said. "The only reason I'm coaching is to have an impact on the players and have them improve.

"That's what we're striving for every time we take the court. We want to see improvement. We can't be stagnant or go backward as a team."

Nature Coast finished up 2012 with a 10-6 mark, but failed to win its fourth straight district title and fifth in sixth years, settling for second in 2A-6.

Graduation claimed the Sharks' No. 1, Hernando Today Player of the Year Zenon Kouts, along with All-County No. 5 Aaron Murray.

"I always have high expectations," Nature Coast head coach Tom Brown said. "I expect we'll be competitive and make a run at districts.

"I feel like we're a balanced team. We've got a couple of guys coming back from last year with good experience.

Sophomore Jesse Dewitt won a district championship last year at No. 4 singles. Two other sophomores, Alec Lund and Conner Schwefringhaus, are also back in the fold, and those three will battle for the top three spots.

Freshman Dakota Willey along with sophomores Gabe Benitez, Jerry Bianculli and Nickolas Pais will fight to fill No. 4 and No 5.

"Obviously without Zenon, we can't guarantee a win at one," Brown said. "We have to fight hard for wins at the high end. But I think the middle of our lineup and the end of our lineup will be as good as they've been.

"If we don't make a good run at districts, I wouldn't consider it a successful year. Anything less than runner-up would be pretty disappointing."

Central (4-9 in 2012) and Hernando (1-10) are both breaking in new boys coaches and looking to rebuild.

The Bears are now guided by Bob Gill, a self-proclaimed "snowbird" and substitute teacher at West Hernando Middle School.

The 69-year-old Gill, a member of the Western Michigan University Hall of Fame from his playing days, was the men's head coach at Bowling Green State University for 20 years, earning Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year honors in 1982.

This marks his 31st year of coaching, 11 of them on the prep level in Michigan, but he admits he probably faces his biggest challenge. Junior Buster Burnette is his only returning player who saw significant action last year.

"My hope is, with almost all underclassmen, to develop enough this year to be more competitive (next season) than I suspect we will be this year," Gill said.

Erik Lawson takes over at Hernando, the team he played for from 2004-08 before playing for four years at Warner University.

Beyond junior James Ortega, the Leopards lack anyone with much previous court time.

"Most of them are just starting," Lawson said. "I'm expecting to see some improvement. Slowly start getting better as they gain experience."

Weeki Wachee (5-7 as a second-year program in 2012) is just trying to take steps forward; though playing in loaded 1A-8 with Tampa-based teams makes it difficult.

"We can be competitive with some of these teams," Weeki Wachee head coach Bob Croyle said. "We're not going to get 7-0'd except in the district."

With top players Delanie McCabe and Mallorie Pickersgill gone, the Nature Coast girls will surely have to reload.

The cupboard isn't exactly bare for a squad that went 11-3 and was the 2A-6 runner-up last season.

Senior Christine Sniffen (14-3 last year), a two-time All-County choice and a district champion at No. 3 in 2012, will now be looked on to lead the way for the Lady Sharks.

With junior Rosie Witherell back after sitting out in 2012, and freshman Madeline Pickersgill added to the roster, hopes are still high.

"We're more solid at the bottom of our lineup than we've ever been. We'll be OK," Nature Coast girls coach John Downey said. "In years past we've been top-heavy. We haven't had the support.

"One thing about us, you can never count the Sharks out. We're going to give it everything we've got."

Hernando, part of 2A-6 as well, has four girls returning, including its top three singles players: Shelby Marrero, Jada Bergstrom and Lida Marie Steinkamp.

Freshman Grace Curren, however, could end up sliding in at No. 1, battling Marrero for that position.

"If everybody is playing well, we should be OK," Hernando head coach Pete Lahey said. "We should be better than last year (6-6). One through four is pretty solid."

Over at Central, the Lady Bears can boast reigning Player of the Year Brittany Blackburn, who as a junior went 19-1 and claimed a district crown at No. 4.

Senior Jordan Stenholm also earned a district title and an All-County nod at No. 5.

Central nearly went to regionals but dropped a runner-up tiebreaker to Land O' Lakes to finish 10-8.

"We're hoping to be in the top two at districts this year," Central girls coach Sonya Burns said. "We have a strong team all the way down.

As for Blackburn, "She'll be playing three, she moves up a spot," Burns said. "But she's looking very, very strong. She's hitting with a lot of pace, but she's still just as consistent."

The best player in the county might actually belong to Weeki Wachee, coming off a 2-13 record in its second year.

Junior Erin Moynihan, the 2011 All-County No. 1, went 8-2 in limited action last season.

"I think she's going to go all the way," Lady Hornets head coach Elisabeth Awtrey said. "She'll continue to build on her success of the past years and make an even stronger run.

"Some of the girls in our district are ranked pretty high in the nation. I know she's got that on her mind. But we're not going to let that defeat us."

Rick Scholl, previously a coach with the Weeki Wachee girls and director of tennis at Sugarmill Woods, has taken over the Lady Eagles of Springstead.

Though the Lady Eagles only went 4-9 last year, they have a lineup full of returnees, including junior Robyn Cotney, 10-4 in 2012, who will play at No. 3.

"I'm pretty optimistic to get them going this year and with such a young team I'm really looking forward to next year, as well," Scholl said. "I'm looking to build something at Springstead like their wrestling program. We've got the talent."

Hernando Christian Academy, playing as an independent, will once again field boys and girls squads under head coach Jeff Moore.

The Lions have three boys and three girls returning. Sophomore Andrew Barrett and junior Marcos Kolb lead the boys, while eighth-grader Katherine Moore will play No. 1 for the girls.

"We're really young," Coach Moore said. "We're going to be on the lower end of the scale this year. But we'll be all right.

"Our main goal this year is to just get everybody to elevate their game up. It should be fun to watch them grow."


cbernhardt@hernandotoday.com (352) 544-5288

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