Depth — and not just talent at the top — could be the difference at the state boys tennis tournament. Of course, it never hurts to have both.
When the action begins Thursday at McKennan Park, Lincoln could lead the charge of schools expected to challenge for the coveted team title. The defending state champions are blessed with talent up and down their roster.
“We won seven of the nine flights last year so it was kind of a walk away win. I don’t think it’s going to be as clear-cut this year,” said Lincoln Coach Tom Krueger. “I think it’s going to be a dogfight all the way.”
Krueger’s Patriots (20-1) return four individual champs from a year ago, in addition to No. 1 singles standout Kaleb Dobbs, who comes in with a pristine 22-0 record. Lincoln also returns five of six players from their three champion doubles teams, with Kaleb joining forces with younger brother Sam — an eighth grader — to be forces on the court. (The brothers were a perfect 21-0 in doubles action this season.)
“They’re phenomenal tennis players and it’s fun to watch them play. They’ve got to step it up, though,” Krueger said. “You can’t take any match lightly when you get to the state tournament — anything can happen.”
Lincoln will again lean on uncommon depth with Sam Dobbs (21-2 at No. 2 singles), Austin Noldner (19-3 at No. 3), Arjun Choudhry (17-3 at No. 4), Erik Rossing (21-2 at No. 5) and Dylan Wald (11-2 at No. 6). They’ve also got sophomore Aiden DeBoer, who sports a 21-1 record in No. 3 doubles alongside Wald.
Despite their many accomplishments, though, Lincoln wasn’t perfect this season. That distinction belongs to the Mitchell Kernels, who handed the Patriots their only loss in a 5-4 decision Monday in Sioux Falls.
“It was good to see that level of competition because we’re going to see that on Friday and Saturday when we’re playing our matches,” Krueger said. “I’m looking at it as a positive thing. It was a wake up call, and we’ve got some work to do.”
Like Lincoln, Mitchell (21-0) has incredible depth up and down its roster. In No. 2, three, four, five and six singles — represented by Beau Brown, Alex Hegg, Kanin Nelson, Brenden Lehr and Jacob Dahme, respectively — they’re a combined 113-8. Senior Jacob Cersosimo is the anchor in No. 1 singles (16-7) and has a 22-3 record in No. 1 doubles alongside Hegg.
Runners-up at state last year, Kernels coach Pat Moller sees more focus in this year’s squad.
“At last year’s tournament, we were in six championship matches and we lost all six of them. That left a pretty impressionable mark on our kids and has motivated them in the offseason to get better,” said Mitchell Coach Pat Moller.
Topping the Patriots on their home court earlier this week also gave Mitchell a boost.
“It was certainly a nice win for us. I think that everybody before that match, a lot of fans, thought it was Lincoln and then everybody else,” Moller said. “Now maybe it’s closer than what people thought.”
Where a combination of top-line talent and quality depth is concerned, Washington could also make a championship push this weekend. Defending No. 2 singles champion, sophomore Elliot Hartwig, is back to defend his crown. Hartwig (16-2) was the only player in the No. 2 field to defeat Sam Dobbs, winning two of three matches this season.
“I think going into it we’re of the mindset that anyone could win at any flight. I think anyone can take it,” said Coach Jill Hurley. “Obviously we’re really strong at the top, but I think some of our lower matches could pull through. Our goal is to get on the board in all flights.”
Washington’s Nate Ackert (15-4 in No. 1 singles) has stood toe-to-toe with the state’s best, and with Hartwig, has dispatched every opponent in No. 1 doubles not named “Dobbs.” The Warriors also have Cole Benson (14-6 in No. 3 singles) and Aidan Hartwig (11-6 in No. 4), who combined for a 12-7 mark in No. 2 doubles.
O’Gorman, meanwhile, has taken a small if not unexpected step back after two-time No. 1 singles champion Tommy Entwistle graduated. Still, the Knights are no strangers to winning ways and have a lot of push in the middle of their roster with eighth-graders Cade Damgaard (11-4 at No. 3 singles) and Wil McDowell (14-1 at No. 4), and junior Austin Bauer (9-3 at No. 5).
In the chase for a No. 1 singles title, expect to see 2014 runner-up Chuck Tang of Rapid City Stevens in the mix. Tang (23-4) bounced Kaleb Dobbs in a semifinal thriller a year ago, but the Lincoln sophomore won both of their matches this season. Brandon Valley’s Bill Trevillyan (22-5), Roosevelt’s Logan Barr (12-6) and Yankton’s Luke Rockne (13-6) could also be in the mix along with Dobbs, Tang, Ackert and Cersosimo.
“One and two [singles] I think are going to be really good,” Krueger said. “Everybody’s going to have to step it up and be ready to play.”