The Olentangy Orange High School girls tennis team won't be able to ease into the season.
A frontloaded schedule puts the burden on the Pioneers to be near the top of their game in the season's first two weeks.
Orange opens Monday, Aug. 19, at home against DeSales and begins OCC-Capital Division play Tuesday, Aug. 20, at defending champion New Albany. The Pioneers then play host to Hilliard Davidson on Wednesday, Aug. 21, and Olentangy on Aug. 27 in a league match before facing Watterson on Aug. 29 at home in the first round of the Ohio Tennis Coaches Association tournament.
Last season, the Pioneers finished 7-9 overall and placed third in the OCC-Capital.
"We'll know right away how good we are," coach Mark Latham said. "Our league rotation changed this year and we face the top two teams in the league in our first two (league) matches. If we want to compete for a league championship, we (had) better be prepared from the start. Some of our most important matches are in the first couple of weeks."
Orange should be buoyed by the return of senior Anna Sanford, a Division I state qualifier in singles as a freshman and sophomore who was ineligible to play last season because she had competed in a USTA match on Labor Day. The OHSAA prohibits players from competing in an organized event outside of high school on Labor Day or later.
Sanford played first singles in 2011, going 34-1 and reaching a state quarterfinal after winning sectional and district titles.
Her sister, freshman Alle Sanford, also is expected to be a key player for the Pioneers, as are three returnees from last year in senior Madison Wolfe and juniors Jessica Phelps and Madison Riley.
"We have a lot of talented players. This is a strong team with a large number of USTA players and a great work ethic," Latham said. "Anna Sanford is a strong, seasoned player with national exposure. We've got four or five who are ranked nationally.
"Phelps and Wolfe teamed up at the end of last year. They have matured as players and should be in the hunt for a lot of wins. Riley is a hard worker who has begun to find her groove."
Also back are sophomores Yoonsu Kim and Carly Vroom. They will be vying for spots with classmates Sruti Chigurupati and Kat Dahs.
"Conditioning and mental focus will be keys for us," Latham said. "These girls have to have the ability to last for extended matches and keep their mental focus sharp. We have some big goals, but we have to focus on the small things to achieve them. They have to work diligently each and every day.
"We want to put ourselves in position to compete for an OCC championship, make a solid run in the OTCA state tournament and compete well with the top teams in central Ohio. Individually, I'd like to see us get two or more girls to district and to state."
Unlike past years when the OCC-Ohio championship was decided by the combined number of points each team scored in league dual matches and the league tournament, the title will be determined solely by dual records this year.
The champions of the four OCC divisions will compete in a tournament for the overall OCC team title, with the second-place teams in each league, the third-place teams, etc., competing in separate tournaments.
Brdicka returns for experienced Braves
Olentangy has returned six letterwinners from last season, when it finished 11-7 overall and was the OCC-Capital runner-up.
Sophomore Bri Brdicka moves up to first singles this season, replacing her sister, 2013 graduate Megan Brdicka. The sisters advanced to the Division I district tournament in doubles, but they had to forfeit their first-round match because Bri was ill.
"Bri has a great shot to return to district and she likely will play singles this time," coach Jeff Luxenburger said. "She is solid at the net, but her groundstrokes are her true assets. She is skillful at working players around the court and then blowing it by them with her passing shots."
Grace Cramer, the lone senior on the roster, will rotate between singles and doubles with junior Namrata Arya, who is eligible to play this year after having to sit out last season because of the OHSAA's transfer rule.
Junior Pallavi Mannava is expected to play second singles for the Braves, who opened Aug. 12 against Westland and will begin league play Tuesday, Aug. 20, at home against Big Walnut.
"Pallavi Mannava has improved her backhand, which was a bit of an Achilles' heel last year," Luxenburger said. "She is a truly consistent player. Grace Cramer has added power and quickness and she's going to be a great leader on and off the court. Namrata Arya is a complete player who will fit into our system really well."
The Braves' other returnees are juniors Elyssa Ackerman, Izzy Smith and Jackie Vouis. Also on the roster are juniors Hannah Baney and Madison Luse.
"Vouis and Ackerman will likely play doubles together again, as their strengths complement each other," Luxenburger said. "Our doubles teams are going to be really experienced, which is fantastic. That should help us triumph in some of those 3-2 matches, which end up making the difference between an average season and a great one."
Patriots have high hopes for season
Six letterwinners, including senior Sydney Power, have returned for Liberty, which finished 13-6 overall and was the OCC-Central runner-up last year.
Power was a Division I state qualifier last season, losing in the first round. Advancing to state was quite an achievement considering that she had undergone surgery on her left wrist six weeks before the season and had played only a few matches before the postseason.
"What she did was pretty impressive," said coach Christine Kaeding, whose team opens Thursday, Aug. 15, at Gahanna before beginning league play Tuesday, Aug. 20, at home against Central Crossing. "She was lucky to be (at state). Not everybody can recover that quickly to play at the level she played at."
Also back are sophomores Anna Delaney and Alexia Myers, each of whom was a district qualifier a year ago. Delaney and 2013 graduate Olivia Groves lost in the second round in doubles and Myers lost in the first round in singles.
The other returnees are juniors Rachel Carline and Sonia Chhabria and sophomore Avivah Wang. Rounding out the roster are sophomore Lizzie Radkiewicz and freshman Sidney Rieneke.
"All the girls play doubles and singles well," Kaeding said. "The strength is their chemistry on the court. The skill and knowledge of both singles and doubles is a large bonus. We will have to see who our opponent is and pick a lineup accordingly."
In the OCC-Central a year ago, the Patriots totaled 61 points and went 6-1 in dual matches as Upper Arlington (80, 7-0) won its 24th consecutive league championship.
"(The) goals are to win the OCC title, (advance) most of them to district and at least five to the state tournament," Kaeding said. "They are high goals, but the girls are willing to work as hard as possible to achieve these goals.
"They all are good players. They are very competitive. They are willing to play a position that is best for the team and the outcome of the match."