Who'll be 'King of the Courts' depends on April's state series, but Hernando County's prep boys tennis season opens this week.
Beginning March 31, for the first time-ever all six Hernando County male tennis programs will be participating in postseason play.
Last spring, Springstead hoisted its first-ever district championship banner following the Class 3A, District 6 Tourney at River Ridge.
Third-year SHS skipper Joe Nicolai returns three starters from last year's 13-3 team including: senior Hank Deslaurier, and juniors Patrick Deslaurier and Robert Hoover.
According to the veteran mentor Nicolai, Patrick Deslaurier will anchor No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles.
A challenge match has yet to be completed between Hank Deslaurier and Hoover for the coveted No. 2 singles position. The players split sets early in the week before inclement weather rolled in.
The remainder of the team features six first-year varsity players featuring senior Sanja Kumar along with five freshmen: Sam DeAngelis, Alex Hoover, Adam Martinez, Kenny Sweeney and Trevor Yeckley.
At press deadline, Nicolai, who enters the season 27-6, has penciled in Alex Hoover at No. 4 singles and will open the campaign with DeAngelis at No. 5.
Of the new Eagles, "Alex (Hoover) has shown some tremendous promise," described Nicolai. "He's athletic and has played this game for a while. It's one thing to see kids come out after picking up a racquet for the first time, it's another to see young talent prepared to play for the first time at the varsity level."
In doubles action, Coach Nicolai believes Patrick Deslaurier will initially team up with Alex Hoover while keeping last season's No. 2 doubles duo of Hank Deslaurier/Robert Hoover intact.
Both Deslauriers are two-time All-County selections while Robert Hoover was named for the first time last spring.
Hank Deslaurier finished with a team-best 16-2 won-lost singles mark trailing only NCT's Jerry Bianculli for the county lead. Deslaurier owns a school-record four district championships in singles and doubles.
Patrick Deslaurier finished 13-4 while Robert Hoover was right behind at 13-5 in singles competition. Last year, Patrick Deslaurier teamed with Hernando Today Player of the Year Carl Zee for the prestigious 3A-6 No. 1 doubles title.
Nicolai is not a fan of the newly realigned 10-team 3A-5. This year's district meet at Lecanto features schools from four different counties - Citrus, Lake, Marion and Hernando: Citrus, Lecanto, Lake Minneola, Leesburg, Groveland-South Lake, Ocala-Lake Weir, Ocala-Forest, Ocala-Vanguard, Ocala-West Port and Springstead.
District scheduling has been the largest hurdle.
"I don't like the fact that we can't play our district opponents. Nobody wants to come south," noted Nicolai.
As far as the county ranks, Nature Coast Technical won on a technicality in 2013 - Central wouldn't make up a cancelled second match against SHS - giving the Sharks the win.
"We can hold our own locally," insisted Nicolai. "Nature Coast will give us a little battle. I just wish we could have played Mitchell or Land O' Lakes again. We'll try to get another match with Wiregrass Ranch, as well."
On the team's expectations, "The expectations are among the boys," detailed Nicolai. "Like Robbie (Hoover), he wants to move up the ladder in singles by challenging Hank - I love that. I encourage that each week. I love to win, but I'm not putting the pressure on anybody on where they should play."
? ? ?
Last season besides nudging out Springstead for the Hernando County Championship, the Sharks finished 12-5 overall, finishing runner-up in the 2A-6 Tourney at Anclote.
In the first round of regionals, Gainesville-Eastside strafed the Sharks, 7-0.
Of last year's eight Shark netters, six lettermen return including: juniors Conner Schwefringhaus, Alec Lund, Jesse DeWitt, Bianculli and Nick Pais, and sophomore Dakota Willey.
Bianculli captured NCT's lone district title at No. 5 singles by defeating Fivay's Luke Calleja, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2.
NCT is encouraged with its depth unveiling six new first-year varsity players including: sophomores William Molyneaux, Spencer Knoll and Alec Sherman along with freshmen Charles Buckner, Hunter Schwefringhaus and Jose Cosme.
Ninth-year Shark mentor Tom Brown serves as the dean of the current coaching fraternity.
"We had a rebuilding year last year and have almost everyone back this year," Brown said. "Right now we've got a lot more depth. We've got four kids who could challenge and play No. 5 singles on any given day."
Brown believes his overall depth and last year's experience at the varsity level have provided the foundation for a return to a district championship.
"There are no more excuses for these guys. They all got experience as a group last year," noted Brown. "I think we'll be solid top to bottom."
Class 2A, District 7 features eight schools: Central, Hernando, Nature Coast, Crystal River, Pasco, Weeki Wachee, Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills.
Brown didn't mince his words of the Sharks' goal, saying, "We're definitely making a run at districts. We'd love to go to states as a team this year and hopefully make some noise there next year."
Brown, who enters the season 95-35 lifetime at NCT, is within five wins of joining elite company on the California Street campus.
In NCT's 10-year history, only boys basketball coach Dave Piscarik and wrestling coach Mike Lastra have reached the career 100-win plateau.
"One-hundred wins wasn't on my radar," explained Brown. "But it's a nice milestone - I guess it really says something about longevity."
Prior to Tuesday's season-opener at Crystal River, "My biggest concern with this group is that I really don't know our competition," he said. "We expect to play at a certain level. Thank goodness we don't have Tampa-Jesuit or any of the Gainesville teams in our region."
? ? ?
A December anterior cruciate ligament injury sidelined multi-sport product Andrew Jensen from the remainder of soccer and his senior year in tennis. Jensen finished 10-10 last season in singles play for the Weeki Wachee Hornets.
WWHS, which finished 10-8 last year, will be paced by senior Chris Rosser (14-6) and sophomore Mark Mulleavey (11-7) in singles action.
At No. 1 doubles, Rosser/Mulleavey posted a combined 13-4 mark.
New members to the team includes: freshmen Harrison Rosser and Bailey Hypes, sophomore Nick Mullen and junior Chris Helm.
According to Weeki Wachee's third-year mentor Bob Croyle, "We should be competitive at No. 1 and No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles. The rest of the spots are going to have growing pains."
The coaching carousel continues at Hernando High.
Kenneth Day becomes the Leopards seventh boys tennis mentor in seven seasons and eighth across the past nine years.
Last year, HHS finished 6-10 under alumnus Erik Lawson.
After graduating two seniors, the Purple and Gold return five lettermen from last season: seniors James Ortega and Tristan Chatman, junior Harrison Rose, and sophomores Raoul Ilagan and Charles Steinkamp.
Three newcomers include: senior Michael Reed Morgan, and juniors Gerardo Piedra and Brent Day.
Last season, Ortega paced the Leopards in singles win (six) while Steinkamp led in doubles victories (eight).
"As for this season I feel lucky as a coach because a majority of the team has tennis experience, which has led to what I feel is a pretty strong lineup," identified Coach Day. "The team is anchored by our No. 1 player, James Ortega. He's definitely the one to watch for this season and has a chance to have a good season along with the rest of the team."
Behind a young and inexperienced lineup in 2013, Central struggled to a winless 0-14 campaign.
Last year, the Bear netters posted a combined 3-72 mark in singles play and a 2-28 slate in doubles.
Head coach Bob Gill's netters finished eighth in the eight-team 3A-6 Tournament.
This time, CHS returns three lettermen: senior Mateo Cordero, and juniors Derek Zhang and Jacob Middaugh.
Bear newcomers include: juniors Jared Butts and Jordan Brickley, sophomores Adam Keister and Keith White, and freshman Michael Collins.
According to Coach Gill, "Our team is more experienced this year. Last year we were not as good as our record indicated (0-14) and this year I would not predict any great turnaround, but do think that we will be a little more competitive.
"Goal No. 1 would be to end our losing streak. Middaugh, Cordero and Zhang are returnees from last year and are expected to be our core. Brickley and Collins are expected to round out our starting lineup."
? ? ?
Brooksville's tiny Hernando Christian Academy finished 2-10 in boys action in 2013.
HCA returns four lettermen from last spring including: seniors Marco Kolb and Brielle Manuel, sophomore Andrew Barrett and eighth-grader Jamie Vanderveken.
Three newcomers, all from this year's winning soccer program, add optimism including: senior Leonardo Arvedi, and juniors Marvin Kolb and Louis Frach.
Marco Kolb led the Lions in singles victories last season (five).
Frach recently made a name for himself by winning the Open Division of the Simon Toftegaard Memorial Tournament in Brooksville. To win it, Frach solved two of the county's finest players: NCT's Jesse DeWitt and Springstead's Patrick Deslaurier.
"We've got a pretty young team," described HCA's third-year mentor, Pastor Jeff Moore. "But Frach is a quality player."
On being able to compete in the state series for the first time in the rugged 11-team 2A-7 Tournament at Hillsborough Community College, "None of my kids has ever played for a title," described Pastor Moore. "Being able to compete is a good thing. I realize it's a tough district; unfortunately, that's where the state placed us."