Girls Tennis: Big Walnut features strong lineup

SCOTT GERFEN
editorial@thisweeknews.com
Big Walnut's Molly McLane returns the ball during a singles match against visiting Delaware Hayes on Aug. 18.

When Big Walnut girls tennis coach Ryan Balaz adds up his team's experience this season, he counts varsity matches rather than the years his athletes have played the sport.

"I've had a group before with more seniors but not as many varsity matches under their belt," he said. "That's allowed us to work more on strategy, with movement and playing different scenarios rather than fundamentals."

So far, that experience is translating to some success.

The Golden Eagles were 2-2 overall and 1-0 in the realigned OCC-Capital Division before playing Westerville South on Aug. 20.

Big Walnut opened with a 5-0 win over Hilliard Darby on Aug. 10 and won its league opener against Delaware 4-1 on Aug. 18.

The Golden Eagles lost to Olentangy Liberty 4-1 on Aug. 11 in the Ohio Tennis Coaches Association Division I team tournament and fell to Westerville Central 3-2 on Aug. 13.

Junior Addy Smith, who plays third singles, was off to the team's best start at 7-0 before playing South.

"She's playing with a lot of confidence and striking the ball well, moving forward and finishing points," said Balaz, who is in his 10th season. "I think her experience from playing second singles last year is paying off."

Last season, Smith went 1-1 in a Division I sectional. She was the only Big Walnut player to win a postseason match.

Returning at first singles is junior Kina Ehlers. Sophomore Molly McLane is playing second singles after leading last year's junior varsity team.

"She's made a big jump and worked really hard over the past 12 months," Balaz said. "The pace of her shot has really improved, and she's made tremendous strides."

Junior Karen Ambrose and senior Alena Lefever are playing first doubles, and seniors Lindsey Stevens and Avery Wagner are at second doubles. Senior Ciara Matos also is competing at doubles.

While Big Walnut has been a traditional runner-up to New Albany in the OCC-Capital in recent years, the Eagles have moved to the OCC-Ohio.

The OCC-Capital also includes Canal Winchester, Dublin Scioto, Franklin Heights, Westerville North and Worthington Kilbourne.

"It's going to be really competitive, and it's going to be really competitive at the top," Balaz said. "I'm hoping with our experience, we can be contending for (the league title)."

Pacers hoping to take more strides

After taking a step forward last fall, Delaware Hayes hopes to continue its ascension while competing in the realigned OCC-Capital.

The Pacers finished 9-8 overall and 3-4 in the OCC-Cardinal last season after going 7-10 overall and 2-5 in the league in 2018.

"Every year my goal is to improve on last year's season," fifth-year coach Dede Hibinger said. "My goal ... is to make this a more competitive program."

Returning to lead the Pacers is an experience-laden group that features senior Alana Kay at first singles, senior Grace Martin at second singles and senior Lily Tope at third singles.

Juniors Eliza Riggs and Sophia Midura will play first doubles, with senior Meredith Keller paired with junior Chloe Kanally at second doubles.

Kay, Tope, Keller and Martin all competed in a Division I sectional last season. Tope said that their 2019 postseason experience and the team's chemistry give the Pacers an opportunity to improve.

"I feel like the team is stronger with who we have on our team," Tope said. "I feel like we could have a winning season this year. I think we all work really hard together as a team, but we also know how to have fun with it when we're playing."

Hibinger expects the Pacers to make additional strides this fall.

"We had a very good season last year. It was the best winning season (Delaware) girls tennis has had," Hibinger said. "Every year here has just gotten better and better and better."

The Pacers will compete in the OCC-Capital with Big Walnut, Canal Winchester, Franklin Heights, Kilbourne, Scioto, Westerville North and Westerville South.

Hibinger believes Delaware has the potential to finish in the top half of the standings.

"I believe our goal this year would primarily be, because we're in a new division, is to finish top five in our league, if not higher," she said. "I think we could finish in the top three, but it also depends on who shows up to play."

Before facing Mount Vernon on Aug. 19, Delaware was off to a 1-3 start, including a 4-1 loss to Big Walnut on Aug. 18 in its league opener. The Pacers also lost to Watkins Memorial 5-0 on Aug. 11 and Bexley 4-1 on Aug. 12 and defeated Marion Harding 3-2 on Aug. 13.

--Stephen Borgna

sports@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekSports

At a glance

BIG WALNUT

*Coach: Ryan Balaz, 10th season

*Top players: Karen Ambrose, Kina Ehlers, Alena Lefever, Molly McLane, Addy Smith, Lindsey Stevens and Avery Wagner

*Key losses: None

*Last season: 6-13 overall

*2019 OCC-Capital standings: New Albany (5-0), Big Walnut (4-1), Newark (3-2), Canal Winchester (2-3), Groveport (1-4), Franklin Heights (0-5)

DELAWARE HAYES

*Coach: Dede Hibinger, fifth season

*Top players: Chloe Kannally, Alana Kay, Meredith Keller, Grace Martin, Sophia Midura, Eliza Riggs and Lily Tope

*Key losses: Abbey Eyerman, Evelyn Mignanou, Olivia Wallace and Sydney Wolf

*Last season: 9-8 overall

*2019 OCC-Cardinal Standings: Dublin Jerome (7-0), Olentangy Berlin (6-1), Dublin Scioto (5-2), Hilliard Bradley (4-3), Delaware Hayes (3-4), Hilliard Darby (2-5), Thomas Worthington (1-6), Worthington Kilbourne (0-7)

Delaware Hayes' Grace Martin returns the ball during a singles match at Big Walnut on Aug. 18.