It would be easy for opponents to underestimate Austin Karbler, who plays first singles for the Olentangy High School boys tennis team.
The 5-foot-6, 140-pound junior is significantly smaller than most of his opponents and usually can't match the power of their serves, but his size disadvantage didn't stop him from winning 15 of his first 17 matches this season.
"Austin isn't going to overpower anyone with his serve or intimidate anyone with his size, but he beats people who are much bigger than him on a regular basis," coach Jeff Luxenburger said. "He has a winner's mentality, which is something that is difficult to teach. In situations where many players get tight, Austin excels and is able to commit to his game plan with confidence. He is not only confident in his game, but he makes smart decisions tactically, which makes him a great player to coach."
Karbler's mental toughness has enabled him to rally from behind to win close matches. On April 13, he rallied for a 5-7, 6-4, 11-9 victory over Village Academy's James Pyne to lead the Braves to a 3-2 win.
Karbler trailed 9-6 in the third set, which was decided by pro-set scoring, before winning the final five games.
"Since I don't have a lot of power, I've learned to be more mentally tough than my opponents," he said. "When I miss a shot, I don't get too down about it, and, when I make a good shot, I use it to get myself pumped. But I try not to get too bipolar about any situation. Tennis is as much of a mental game as it is physical."
Karbler tries to frustrate his opponents with consistency, returning shot after shot.
"I'm a grinder who wins matches by getting to every ball," he said. "When I return tough shots, I know I'm getting into the other guy's head, so I keep doing it and wait for them to make a mistake. I'm learning to be more offensive with my shots, but my strength is my defense."
Karbler didn't start playing tennis until the seventh grade and didn't begin taking private lessons until his freshman year. He had a winning record at third singles as a freshman in 2011, when Olentangy finished 0-11.
Last year, Karbler moved up to first singles but suffered a season-ending injury to his right shoulder during the fifth match. He had to rest his shoulder for six weeks, followed by six weeks of physical therapy.
The Braves won two of their four matches a year ago before Karbler's injury but lost nine of their last 10 without him in the lineup to finish 3-12.
"I was really disappointed that I got hurt because I had never really been injured before and I was looking forward to the experience of playing first singles," Karbler said. "I still traveled with my team to every match, but it was hard to watch them play with my arm in a sling.
"That experience motivated me to work harder in the offseason to work out all of the kinks and improve my overall game."
With Karbler in the lineup, the Braves were 15-2 overall and 5-1 in the OCC-Capital Division before playing Delaware on May 7.
Among his key matches this season, he beat Liberty's Kyle Flahive 6-3, 6-2 on April 10 and defeated Orange's Tim Hawk 6-4, 6-4 on April 20 in a league match. The Braves won both matches 3-2.
"Austin's major strength is getting to every ball and playing it back deep in the court," Luxenburger said. "He has added more pace this year on his forehand and backhand sides and gets a fair share of winners. He is also deceptively skilled at the net and uses his great hands to angle volleys and drop shots."
Karbler is hoping to continue his tennis career in college.
"My goals are to qualify for the (Division I) district tournament this year and to make it to state before I graduate," he said. "I would like to continue playing after I finish high school, if I have the opportunity to."