By Dan Woodlock
Times-Junction Sports Editor
The Lady Flashes’ varsity tennis team picture looks quite similar to the 2017 version.
Willard has every intention to keep the Sandusky Bay Conference Bay Division standings looking the same, as well.
Under the direction of Head Coach Josh Bauerle, the Lady Flashes enter the new season fully-loaded with all nine letterwinners from a 2017 campaign that produced an 18-1 record and and outright undefeated Bay Division championship (14-0) in their first season of SBC play.
The team also sent a pair of doubles squads to the District Tournament, as part of a prolific season that featured not only Willard’s dominance, but their depth and determination, as well.
Seven players posted between 21 and 26 wins, while an eighth (Addie Slone) was well on her way, before a knee injury in the team’s lone loss of the season (a 3-2 defeat at Toledo Central Catholic in the Coaches Tournament) cut that short.
But Slone is back, as part of a powerful five-member senior class that also includes Emma Moll, Carlee Gibson, Jolynn Brubaker and Tori Barnett.
“It’s been an interesting transition for our program and the seniors,” said Bauerle. “We had no clue how we would be when they came in as freshmen, then gained a little confidence for the following season and then seriously felt we could compete for a league championship last season. Now we come in as league favorites and teams are definitely going to have us marked on their schedule.
“The girls have put in a ton of time--even more than they did last season,” he continued. “The mindset has been to keep everyone hungry to come back for more. Other than maybe a vacation here or there, the girls have been at everything in the offseason and a number of them have added private lessons.”
The fourth year Lady Flashes coach admitted that even though the same cast returns for another run, preparations for the 2018 season are substantially different than in 2017.
“Winning the league was such a big goal of ours,” he noted. “Now we’re in that ‘What’s Next’ phase, where we’re setting new goals that will push us even further. We have three that we’re working toward, with the first being to defend our Bay Division championship. We also want to win the Norwalk Doubles Tournament, because I consider that one of the best tournaments we have in our area. We also want to work to have ourselves ranked in the top-10 in Division II girls tennis at some point this season. That’s not easy to do, when you consider how many private schools fill the top of the rankings each year.”
One way he hopes to boost his team’s chances of climbing the rankings was to beef up the Lady Flashes’ non-league schedule. He noted huge additions of Galion (a team that went undefeated in the regular season a year ago), Clyde (the SBC Lake Division champs from 2017) and Division I power Ashland.
Bauerle stated that having nine letterwinners and only seven varsity line-up positions per night has made for an exciting, but also challenging situation.
“You need a great group like ours to truly buy in to what we’re doing and know that there will always be times when some, unfortunately, aren’t going to be playing varsity on a particular night,” he said. “Those same kids would be stars on about any other team.
“They know the situation coming in, and it has made for some of the best competition in practice that I’ve seen,” he continued. “These girls understand that they can’t afford any off days. Someone is always there that would love to have your spot. We’re all on the same page and supporting each other 100 percent, but this is also a competitive group and kids want that opportunity to play and contribute.”
The line-up for Willard’s season-opener at Saturday’s Clyde Invitational is similar to how they competed a year ago...with Slone returning to start at First Doubles.
“Addie’s come back stronger than ever,” said Bauerle. “As a coach, you’re prepared to have that talk about how it’s going to take time to get back into the flow of things. But she came out like she hadn’t missed a beat.”
Slone won 13 of her 15 matches prior to her injury (all at First Doubles) and was 6-0 in the Bay Division. Of her 65 career matches, 64 have come at doubles, where Slone has notched 45 wins.
Brubaker (26-9, 13-1) will again hold down the other half of the WHS First Doubles duo. She continued her yearly improvement, jumping from five wins as a freshman, to 19 as a sophomore, all the way to 26 as a junior to lead all active players with 50 career wins.
“It was a tough season for Jo,” said Bauerle. “It was depressing for her when Addie got hurt because those two had played together a lot. I compare it to like someone losing a spouse. But then Kennedy (Daub) stepped in and filled that spot and did a great job. Jo’ really helped bring her along and they wound up playing half of the season together. We never lost a step.
“Both Addie and Jo are hard-hitters and they’re looking to combine those abilities with smart play. I don’t see their goal being anything short of making it to State. They are that good.”
Daub competed in her first tennis season a year ago, opening in a three-way mix at Second Doubles, where she saw action in nine matches (going 6-3). She then joined Brubaker on a First Doubles run that spanned 17 matches and produced 13 wins, including a Sectional runner-up finish and a District victory over St. Mary’s Memorial’s Grace Dickie and Bailey Lininger, 6-3, 7-5. Daub finished her sophomore season with an overall record of 21-8 and went 11-1 in SBC Bay Division contests.
Barnett (22-6, 11-0) and junior Whitney Robinson (22-5, 12-0) formed the other primary pieces in the Second Doubles equation a year ago. Each player made a significant mark in what was their first varsity seasons.
“It was amazing having three players that, no matter who you put with who, went out and dominated,” said Bauerle. “It was great knowing that just about every match we played was basically going to produce a win at Second Doubles going in.
“Tori and Whitney are playing better than ever,” he added. “Those two would be a star ‘First’ Doubles team for other schools, and if the need was ever there, I’d have no problem sending any of them into a First Doubles match.”
Moll just quietly went about her business at First Singles for the Lady Flashes, taking on each team’s top player and stabilizing things with her relentless never-say-die approach to each match. She powered her way to a share of the team lead in victories (26-9), including 18 at First Singles and a closing 8-5 Doubles run with Addy Paxton. The tandem advanced to the District Tourney and notched one win, 6-4, 6-4, against Lima Central Catholic’s Maddie Moore and Madie Brinkman. Moll (41 career wins, all in the last two seasons) also finished 12-1 in Bay Division matches.
“Emma’s put in so much work at Lexington and was even a part of Ashland’s offseason program,” said Bauerle. “There may be times where she is not going to be the best athlete on the court, but she’s an extremely smart player and will outwork anyone. She’s developed even more to her offensive game, which makes her even more difficult to beat.”
Gibson enters her fourth varsity season and will be the opening Second Singles player. She went 21-2 in that role a year ago (13-1 in the Bay Division) and 24-5, overall. She has been one of the most battled-tested Lady Flashes over her career, and has risen to the occasion with regularity.
“It’s seems like any time we have a 3-2 match, it comes down to Carlee,” noted Bauerle. “She’s made for those moments. She has a killer backhand and I think her forehand can be solid, but it’s a mental thing right now. Carlee just finds a way to win. She has that ‘try to beat me’ approach and ice water in her veins.”
Gibson enters 2018 with 44 career wins.
Paxton put together a brilliant sophomore campaign, after getting a small taste of varsity action as a freshman. The junior accumulated a 25-8 record and went 17-3 at Third Singles, where she projects to start this season. Paxton was one of four Lady Flashes to come within one victory of State at Districts.
“Addy’s situation was a lot like Second Doubles, in that we pretty much were able to count on a win at Third Singles going into every match,” said Bauerle. “She comes at you like a First Singles player, and is such a competitive person that wants to be at First Singles and facing the best. I would have no problem putting her there. Where we’re at right now, if it comes down to challenge matches and it’s pretty even, I’d still lean toward keeping people where they’ve had experience already.”
Sophomore Kalli Sowers went 5-5 in 10 varsity matches last season, as she looks to factor into a role this season.
“Kalli can play either doubles or singles,” noted Bauerle. “I’m thinking doubles might be her thing, simply because she is such a monster at the net. She is one of the most athletic kids we have, and we’re focusing on developing the tennis skills to go with that athleticism.
Also in the mix are two of the team’s top junior varsity players from a year ago in Ella Schag and Natalie Van Zoest. Bauerle commented that Van Zoest (who won her only varsity match in 2017 at Third Singles) possesses the best forehand on the entire team and Schag is one of the most competitive players on the squad.
The Lady Flashes won their first 10 matches of the season a year ago, including a season-opening 5-0 Coaches Tournament win at Van Wert. They closed things out with an eight-match winning streak.
The WHS varsity line-up combined to win 77 percent of the matches they competed in (122-37), taking 79 percent at singles (59-16) and 75 percent at doubles (63-21).
Willard also features a sizeable junior varsity squad, under the leadership of Coach Bob Felter. Bauerle noted that Becca Slone is already on the cusp of playing doubles at the varsity level, further adding to the team’s depth. Athletic freshman Vivian Barnett has impressed early on and returning jayvee players, Mckenzie Danhoff, Macey Compton, Kayleigh Bowers and Ora Metcalf form a strong young nucleus.
New additions include Maliyah Osborne, Lilli Urie, Dakota Cok and Autumn Tackett.
“We won somewhere around 90 percent of our jayvee matches last year,” said Bauerle. “With us graduating five great seniors after this season, I’d really like to see our younger kids continue to take ownership of this program. We want to build this to last.”