Ninth-year coach Scott Nickel senses a different atmosphere around the Hilliard Darby High School boys tennis team this season.
Last season, the Panthers did not have any seniors and finished 4-9 overall. This year, they have six seniors.
“Experience often translates into confidence on the court,” said Nickel, whose team opened March 29 with a 4-1 loss to Worthington Kilbourne in an OCC-Central Division match and defeated Briggs 5-0 on April 2. “Our seniors have been in the program and know what is expected. We’re seeing a difference in attitude and in work ethic.”
Junior Kyle Chilcote is playing first singles while seniors Andy Kim and Jason Pelfrey and sophomore C.J. Martin are vying for playing time at second and third singles, although Martin and Kim are currently injured.
Martin, who saw significant time at second singles last year, is recovering from a torn right bicep and Kim has a sprained right ankle. Both are expected back in the lineup soon, Nickel said.
Junior Sirhasha Ponna and sophomore Siddartha Revur are playing first doubles and senior Talha Saif and Sounak Roy are playing second doubles.
Also expected to see significant playing time are seniors Tarun Jain, Daniel Moussa and Nathan Tan.
“A key factor is going to be how quickly those players can recover to full health and sharpen their tennis games,” Nickel said of Martin and Kim. “We need to get off to some early wins in the season. That could provide us with some momentum.”
Last season in the Division I sectional tournament at home, none of the Panthers made it past the opening match.
In singles, Saif lost to Pickerington North’s Andrew Brady 6-2, 7-6, Ponna lost to Whetstone’s Stan Bilyk 6-3, 6-4 and Revur lost to Groveport’s Brian Rosfelder 7-6, 4-6, 6-4.
In doubles, Chilcote and Martin lost to Hilliard Bradley’s Troy Fleischman and Dan Smith 6-1, 7-6 and, after having a first-round bye, Pelfrey and Kim lost to Hamilton Township’s Josh Byerly and John Homan 6-2, 6-2 in the second round.
Darby went 2-5 in OCC-Central matches last season and finished the league tournament in sixth with 27 points, behind Upper Arlington (82, 7-0), Thomas Worthington (60, 6-1), Dublin Coffman (59, 5-2), Hilliard Davidson (41, 4-3) and Kilbourne (40, 3-4,) and ahead of Westland (10, 1-6) and Central Crossing (1, 0-7).
Consistentency key for Jaguars to succeed
Third-year Bradley coach Ben Lilly believes the key for his team to improve on last season is to be more consistent.
The Jaguars, who opened April 3 with an OCC-Capital match against Franklin Heights, finished 3-8 overall last year.
“I hate to say this, but I think our team is not super consistent,” Lilly said. “That’s going to be a big issue. If we can get a little more consistency, I think we will be fine.”
Bradley lost four players from a year ago to graduation but returns its first singles player in senior Dan Smith.
Smith and 2011 graduate Troy Fleischman lost to Pickerington North’s Sam Prewitt and Dylan Bhaerman 6-4, 6-0 in the second round of the sectional tournament at Darby last year.
Seniors Chris Bowman and Kevin Girardi, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, are competing for play-ing time at second and third singles.
Last season, Bowman lost to Pickerington North’s Bryce McGuire 6-0, 6-1 in a play-in sectional match.
Junior Will Kolenky and sophomore Parker Holland are starting the season at first doubles, with junior Nizam Hussein and sophomore Jimmy Gaydos playing second doubles.
Last year, Kolenky and 2011 graduate Krishna Patel lost to St. Charles’ Grant Dolven and Weston Niermeyer 6-0, 6-0 in the second round at sectional.
Also vying for playing time are seniors Nick Brown and Kyle Vermillion, junior Prit Patel and sophomores Cody Devereaux and Nick McKean.
Last season, Bradley finished fifth (24, 3-3) in the OCC-Capital, behind New Albany (76, 7-0), Olentangy Orange (52, 6-1), Big Walnut (39, 5-2) and Delaware (31, 3-3) and ahead of Watkins Memorial (22, 2-5), Franklin Heights (7, 1-6) and Mount Vernon (6, 0-7).
A match between the Jaguars and Delaware was not completed because of bad weather.
“Dan has worked hard this year, so maybe we can move into the top half of the league,” Lilly said. “It’s an ambitious goal, but I think we can do it. New Albany is so good, but I feel good about our chances.”
New Wildcats coach has similar message
The message first-year Davidson coach Steve De Dent delivered to the team entering the season is similar to the one his predecessor, Shawn Walton, gave to the players the past five seasons.
“The key for us is going to have to be consistency,” said De Dent, who served as Walton’s assistant the past three seasons. “You can’t be successful in tennis if you can’t keep the ball in play. That is one of the things Shawn talked about last year, you need to keep the ball in play and give yourselves a chance to win the point.”
Davidson, which opened April 2 with a 5-0 win over Westland in an OCC-Central match, finished 7-9 overall last season.
The Wildcats return seniors Jim Andrews, Pat Holland and Spencer Walter and juniors Joe Justus and Michael Porter.
Walter is in his second season at first singles while Justus will play second singles.
Last year in the sectional tournament at Davidson, Walter lost to Kilbourne’s Brian Aguirre 7-5, 7-6 in the district-qualifying round and Justus lost to Kilbourne’s Jack Klein 6-0, 6-2 in the second round.
“Spencer has done a lot of work over the summer and the fall. I expect some good things out of him,” De Dent said. “Joe has made good strides and will help us out at the No. 2 spot (in singles).”
Porter, who mostly played singles last year, could rotate between singles and doubles this season. He and Holland lost to Kilbourne’s Sam Lazaroff and Roger Juang 6-3, 6-2 in the district-qualifying round at sectional.
Holland and Andrews, who played second doubles last year, are expected to play doubles this spring, but Holland will miss a week or two because he will performing in an Irish dance company in Ireland, De Dent said.
Also vying for playing time are senior Dennis Tran, juniors Nick Armstrong, Matthias Heinz and Darin Myers and sophomores Jason Ng and Kevin Qian.
Among the three players that Davidson lost to graduation last spring was a district qualifier in Kevin Blackstone, who lost to Thomas’ Casey Cempre 6-2, 6-0 in the first round at district at home.
“Even though we have five players back from last year, I really need to see how much they grew as people and as players,” De Dent said. “They like to play the game, but they have to prove to me how important it is to them to be successful as individuals and as a team.”