After a historic season, Northeastern High School is back with the usual area boys tennis teams as the new fall season dawns very soon.
Wayne County rivals Centerville, Lincoln and Hagerstown will aim to compete with the Knights for conference and sectional honors, along with Union County and Randolph County foes Winchester, Union City and Randolph Southern.
The Knights lost most of the players from a team that finished with a state ranking of 10th and a historic trip to state, even in the single-class format of boys tennis in Indiana.
Mike Esposito is back to coach the NHS boys for a seventh season, with son Grant returning for his senior prep season at No. 1 singles.
But it’s a squad of all underclassmen that joins Esposito in the projected Knight lineup, with other slots to be settled before hosting Richmond at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday in a season-opening match for both teams.
Among the returning candidates for varsity spots are juniors Alex Stiner and Austin Kenworthy, sophomore Nate Reynolds, plus juniors Levi Vick and Ryan Wogoman, among others.
Other Northeastern players this fall are juniors Michael McDaniel and Austin Clay, along with Gavin Mull and Alec Sheets.
“Our goal is to have fun and get better. We don’t look at records,” Esposito said of this year’s approach. “We will still play a strong schedule and look for continual improvement, and hope to compete well in the conference at the end of the season, and in the postseason.”
He looks to rival Centerville as a strong contender in the Tri-Eastern Conference.
“I think Centerville has a lot of talent back and a lot of experience, and I believe that makes them the favorite,” Esposito said. “But we hope to be competitive, and I think Lincoln and Hagerstown will also be factors.”
The Bulldogs will once again be led by longtime head coach Randy Ecker (34th year), with his wife, Susie, and daughter Courtney again assisting.
Returning Centerville players include senior Brady Wagenknecht (No. 1 singles), juniors Justyn North and Craig Lair, plus sophomore Skylar Benedict.
Freshman Nolan Witte joins the ‘Dogs for this season and is joined by Blake Shook, Nathan Cheek, Eduardo Tello and Brynden Alvey.
“We are looking for good things this season,” Randy Ecker said by phone.
His team will compete at the Peru Invitational early in the season, then begins conference play against Union City on Sept. 4.
The TEC tournament is at Hagerstown on Sept. 27 and 29, Ecker said.
“I think Northeastern lost a lot of talent from last year, and we hope to step up this year,” he said. “The kids worked hard this past summer, and I am optimistic about our chances.”
Ecker sees the Knights and host Richmond as chief foes for Centerville in sectional competition.
Longtime coach Elizabeth Wonsetler is working with nine players for the Lincoln fall boys tennis campaign.
Senior Eric Underwood and junior Jacob Kissick will lead the Golden Eagles.
“We are a very young team,” Wonsetler said, citing just one senior and two juniors on the high school team.
“The other seven players are competing for the remaining varsity spots,” she added.
Lincoln is scheduled to open at home Monday versus Blue River.
Brian Cadle returns for a second year as head coach at Hagerstown High School.
The Tigers hope to battle Northeastern, Centerville and Lincoln as the usual area and TEC boys tennis powers again this fall.
“I think the team grew during last season and by work in the offseason,” Cadle said recently. “I expect our team to be pretty competitive. Our confidence has increased.”
Hagerstown brings an expected set lineup to its scheduled Thursday opening match at Richmond.
Junior Ben Tinkle is back for a third season at No. 1 singles, along with classmate Nick Arnold at No. 2 singles and sophomore Evan Hoover in the No. 3 singles slot. The doubles teams are expected to be Jordan Auker and Isiah Neal (No. 1) and Trey Kelley with Kevin Beeson (No. 2).
Hagerstown will partner with Lincoln to host a now eight-team format for the Hagerstown Invitational on Aug. 23.
Along with the Tigers and Golden Eagles are Eastern Hancock and Union County, plus new teams Blue River, Blackford, Greensburg and Silver Creek.
“We have a shot to break into the top three in the conference, and would like to have a .600 winning percentage and win our invitational,” Cadle said. “These are the team’s goals, and I think they are doable.”
Outside of Wayne County, but in the TEC, is Union County to the south, and both Winchester and Union City to the north in Randolph County.
The Patriots have a new coach in Joshua Lone and seven returning players on a roster of eight.
Dillon Miller is back and projected in the No. 1 singles slot. Devin Pinney returns after playing at No. 2 singles last fall, and could play a doubles role this time around.
Harrison Hart, Owen Miller and Austin Bowling are sophomores who are expected to fill varsity slots, and the remaining three UC players are Matt Hartman, Eric Robinson and Eddie Bowling.
“Having such a small team really lets me spend personal practice time with the kids,” Lone said. “Our players are improving every day, and our young players will be very important to the team this year and in the upcoming years.”
Dennis Streeter will again lead Winchester boys tennis this fall, and he has junior returning lettermen Wes Martin, Arick Miller and Aaron Wallace back to play key roles in .
Austin Bogue is another junior coming back for the Golden Falcons, and sophomore Mason Melton moves up to varsity play.
Seven other players are new to the team this season, including four freshmen.
“We are looking for a lot of improvement during the year and will be more and more competitive as we get deeper into the season,” Streeter said.
At Union City, Doug Jefferies returns to the job as boys tennis coach of the Indians, a position he held previously from 1995-99.
He welcomes 18 competitors this fall, including eight freshmen.
But Union City will likely line up with returning junior Kullen Weiss a No. 1 singles and sophomore Kyler Smith in the No. 2 singles slot.
Senior Ethan Kerns, plus juniors Hunter Cline and Reece Martin are expected to fill the next three spots, although which player will be No. 3 singles, and which two will form the No. 1 doubles duo, is yet to be determined.
Coach Jefferies figures that sophomore Elijah Thornburg and junior Dustin Hahn will likely compose the No. 2 doubles team.
“I will focus on helping the kids develop solid strokes and improve in the mental aspects of the game,” Jefferies said. “We will work at building the program.”
The Indians begin regular-season match play Aug. 25 at Jay County.
Another new coach in Randolph County will be Amy Hinshaw at Randolph Southern.
Hinshaw steps in for Chris Stevens, the only Rebel boys tennis coach in school history, who retired from teaching and coaching.
Nine Southern boys are competing for varsity spots as the team prepares for a scheduled opening match Tuesday at Hagerstown.
Seniors on the Southern roster are Jack Wolfal and Nick Dunham, along with Arron Pearson and sophomores Kory Slick and David Fisher.
Freshmen players are Jordan McReynolds, Tyler Pegg, Tyler Knotts and Jimmy Ashbaugh.
“I am looking forward to this season,” Hinshaw said. “They are a hard-working group of guys.”