FALL SPORTS PREVIEW | Senior-laden racquet squad swings for tri-district playoffs

Guy Sparkman, a senior co-captain, hammers a forehand during a recent practice. The Falcons’ top singles player hopes to advance to the state tournament in spring 2013.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Guy Sparkman, a senior co-captain, hammers a forehand during a recent practice. The Falcons’ top singles player hopes to advance to the state tournament in spring 2013.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

LANGLEY — What change a year brings.

Twelve months ago, South Whidbey High School’s boys tennis team was without a senior in its ranks and had a first-year coach. Now, head coach Karyle Kramer has two tennis seasons behind her, 10 seniors and an expanding team.

“I have high expectations for the team,” said senior co-captain Guy Sparkman.

The dozen Falcon varsity boys went from having a clear idea of who the top few players were to more parity in a single season. Last year, some of the varsity players had to play up from their skill level. Though the team’s record suffered, Kramer argued that it gave some of the underclassmen an important experience they’ll carry with them to their senior years.

“I believe they’re going to have a higher internal confidence because they played,” she said.

Part of the players’ confidence stems from the new environment Kramer crafted with assistant coach Nancy Ricketts. While Kramer works primarily with the 14 or so varsity and “bubble” junior varsity players and Ricketts instructs the others on a separate court, both worked with all of the players during the first week of practice. It’s part of an inclusive program Kramer wants, where seniors and freshmen mingle, which also reduces hazings (like freshmen picking up loose tennis balls). The two senior co-captains, elected by the team’s votes, have picked up that idea.

“I live my life like, ‘Treat others how I want to be treated,” said senior co-captain Taylor Simmons, who added that he felt excluded as a freshman.

Nine of the 10 seniors attended a captains meeting before the school’s Parents-Athletes-Coaches meeting last week. None of them were official captains at the time and were not required to attend the meeting.

“That showed me something about their strong leadership,” Kramer said. “They’re committed.”

When it’s time to claim a spot on the roster, however, the competition fires up the Falcons. Sparkman is poised to return as the first singles player. From there, it’s anyone’s guess — including Kramer’s.

With so many seniors, five of whom are first-year Falcon tennis players, setting a lineup has been a struggle. A week before the first match, Kramer was still adjusting her opening match lineup against Anacortes.

“Sometimes they were out here for three hours on their own, and I’d hear about later,” Kramer said.

“We’re going to be deeper and we’re going to be more experienced.”

South Whidbey will need a lot of competitive sharpening to push past an early-round exit at the 2A District 1 playoffs last fall. For the senior-laden squad, the goal is clear: advance in the 1A district playoffs.

“It’s my senior year and I’ve always wanted to make it to state, even if it’s unlikely,” Simmons said.

South Whidbey failed to send a boys tennis player to the state tournament for the first time in at least four years last season. Sparkman, playing doubles with Charley Stelling, was eliminated after a three-set match against a state-ranked tandem from Bellingham in the second round.

“I’ve always been bounced out at districts,” Sparkman said.

This new-look team has a new playoff format. South Whidbey is a 1A school this year, as determined by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association based on enrollment. After several years as a 2A school, no one on the team knows what to expect at the end of the regular season against District 1 opponents. South Whidbey will play new opponents like Overlake in Redmond and Seattle Academy because the Cascade Conference has only one other tennis team, Coupeville.

“I’m not sure if it’s going to be harder or just different,” Sparkman said.

Added Kramer: “They’re a little bit of the unknown. It’s hard to identify how we’ll do.”

Tennis is a mental struggle. Miss a few serves, scrap a couple of forehands into the net and frustration mounts. Kramer’s goal, beyond wins and losses, is to coach the players on what to do during the 16 seconds between points and prepare and strategize for matches.

“I’m really trying to connect what they are doing on a tennis court to their lives,” she said. “It’s not about tennis, it’s not about winning or losing. It’s about what they learn.”

To that end, Kramer and Ricketts developed a pair of documents for the Falcons. One is a self-evaluation which asks incisive questions like, “Why do you play tennis?” and “What are your strengths as a tennis player?”

The other is the “Core Covenants of Falcon Tennis” which explains the expectations to be a Falcon tennis player: prepare, respect, best effort, practices, matches and communication. Simmons said the Falcon team’s defining characteristic was not a uniform style, but its preparation and effort.

“We all work hard. We all hustle,” he said.

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