Now in her 11th season as coach of the Pickerington High School Central boys tennis team, Kelli Rings isn't sure if she's ever had a situation like she has this year.
The Tigers have returned their entire lineup from last season, when they finished 13-6 overall and 4-3 in the OCC-Ohio Division, and Rings hopes that experience helps Central be represented in the Division I district tournament for the first time in three years.
"I can't remember whether we've had a year where we haven't graduated anybody," said Rings, whose team was 2-0 overall before facing Lancaster in a league match April 8. "It's a really nice situation. You're familiar with their work ethic, their strengths (and) their weaknesses, and I've seen how they've advanced since last year. I know who's strong in singles and strong in doubles. There's going to be a lot of competition."
Senior Andy Taylor played first singles last season and is expected to hold that spot again this year. Junior Nick Vandervoort and sophomore Chase Pratt played second and third singles, respectively, last year and began this season in those same spots.
Pratt had a team-high 14 wins last season.
Rings rolled out the same lineups in a pair of 5-0 wins over Westerville Central on April 1 and Watkins Memorial on April 2. Juniors Richie Siebert and Tyler Wharton played first doubles and juniors Jake Adams and Anthony D'Innocenzo played second doubles.
The rest of the roster consists of senior Garrett Lennington and sophomore Jackson Mathias.
According to Rings, Pratt and Wharton could alternate between singles and doubles.
The last district qualifiers for Central were Dallas Stang and Chase Thomas in 2011. The 2011 graduates reached district in doubles and won their opening match at district before losing in the second round.
"Last year was a good year. The guys gave all they could and we saw a lot of improvement (from a 9-10 record in 2012)," Rings said. "They came back stronger, hungrier and more competitive. Luckily, we've been able to set up courts inside our fieldhouse on the days when the weather hasn't been so good outside, so we haven't really missed any work."
Central's original OCC-Ohio opener against Newark on April 3 was postponed because of bad weather. While the Tigers hope to figure into the league title chase, Rings pointed to two-time defending league champion North as the favorite.
The Tigers visit North on April 17.
"North is always going to be strong, and Gahanna and Reynoldsburg are usually up there, too," Rings said. "Lancaster has a lot back, too. If we play well enough, I think we can be right there in the mix."
Panthers seeking third straight league title
Coming off back-to-back OCC-Ohio championships, 11th-year North coach Brian Hoff wants to vigorously guard against complacency.
The Panthers have a larger goal in mind, however. They want to be represented in the Division I state tournament for the second time.
North, which finished 15-2 overall and 7-0 with 77 of a possible 82 points in league play last year, took an historic step in the postseason last year when both of its doubles teams won district matches but fell one win short of reaching state.
The Panthers lost two members of those doubles teams to graduation in Ben Keen and Patrick Yen, but their respective partners have returned in juniors Blaine Carr and Matt Barry.
North hasn't had anyone advance to state since 2007, when the doubles team of Kyle Hilborn and Saumil Modi qualified and lost in the first round.
Keen and Yen were the only players the Panthers lost from last season.
"I feel like the guys are definitely motivated and pumped up to defend the (league) title, but (complacency) is something that we will definitely be guarding against," said Hoff, whose team opened April 8 with a league match at Newark. "We've come up one match shy (of getting to state) and we certainly want to get over that hump this season."
According to Hoff, Carr and Barry will play first and second singles, respectively. Junior Cameron Friedman will play third singles, with sophomore Avery Kreemer and senior Franco Platania teaming at first doubles.
At least early in the season, freshmen Spencer Bhaerman, Christian Keen and Peter Vanderhoff will see playing time at second doubles.
"I see improvement in all the returning guys," Hoff said. "Coming into the season, I had expected Matt Barry to continue to be a doubles specialist for us like he had been the last two years. But he has worked incredibly hard in the offseason and has stepped up and claimed one of the singles spots. He is showing tremendous potential as a singles player. ...
"We've got three freshmen with lots of potential, but they are still learning how to play doubles. (They are) struggling a bit with consistency, but I definitely believe that second doubles will be a strength for us before the season is done."