Losing to Oxford in the playoffs last year has left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Starkville High tennis players, but you won’t find the Yellowjackets sitting around moping.
Instead, the team has taken that defeat and turned it into motivation for the 2013 season.
“Last year, we had a successful season,” SHS coach Rob Fyke said. “We lost to Oxford in the second round of the playoffs and Oxford has won the state multiple times, so they are going to be hard to beat, but that’s our goal. We want to improve to a point where we can not only compete but beat them. We certainly want to beat every team we play, but because of their success, that’s our bar.”
If Fyke and the Jackets want to turn that goal into a reality, the first step will be to build upon last year’s success while managing to replace the four valuable seniors.
For Starkville, that process seems to be one that will carry over into the first few matches of the season.
“Last year, we lost four seniors, two boys and two girls,” Fyke said. “On the boys side, we are still looking for a few boys to step up and fill their spots. That process is probably going to be on-going throughout the first month of the season. We have a number of younger players that have some ability, so I have faith that somebody will step up and fill that void.
“On the girls side, we lost Ashley Albritton and Christine Mazzola, but we have more depth in that area. Ashley and Christine were certainly significant contributors, but I expect with the talent on our girls side, we won’t miss a beat.”
Fyke does have a few players that have already proven they are ready to step up and fill the departing players’ shoes.
On the boys side, a trio of seniors have arisen as top contenders. Among those looking to lead SHS in its quest for success are Ethan Musser, Jack Bryan and Aaron Remotigue, but they are not alone.
“As far as our younger players, Will Irvin and Richard Hill are really playing some good tennis right now,” Fyke said. “Combine them with Ethan, Jack and Aaron and those five guys are going to have to step it up in order to be good competition.
“Richard is a sophomore and he’s got wonderful strokes. Will is also a sophomore and he is a big-time competitor. He steps it up mentally in games. You think he might not win the match, but somehow he comes through and wins.”
According to Fyke, the five aforementioned players are going to “significant male players,” but there are a few more Jackets that are looking to push them.
Wesley Albritton, Michael Godley and Kelson Bohna have all proven worthy of court time, and Fyke says he is going to “give them all a shot at the beginning of the year” in order to find the best chemistry for the team.
With individual state champions Emily Turner and Hannah Laird returning to compete for SHS, Fyke is a bit more confident in where the Lady Jackets stand.
“The girls are pretty much stacked,” Fyke said. “Hannah and Emily won the individual state tournament last year. If they lose this year, it will be a surprise to me.”
Fyke’s confidence not only stems from his returning champions, but from players like Dasha Banderinko and Mikayla Taylor, who played almost every match last year and are looking to be strong contenders in 2013.
Seniors Katie Wood, Kara Coble and Carolina Berryhill are all also ready to step up and leave a lasting impact in their final season for SHS.
While the team is still sifting through player lineups, one thing is for certain the level of competition the Lady Jackets will face this season is tougher than last year. That's another ingredient in what Fyke is expecting to be a highly successful season.
“We had a good record last year at 14-2, but that had little to do with our schedule,” Fyke said. “We did not have as many top tier teams as this year. To get prepared this season, we have really boosted the opponents, especially here at the beginning.”
Starkville has already faced one of those new opponents in the form of Hillcrest, Ala. Despite losing a very close match, the experience gained from battling with top notch competitors can only benefit the squad heading forward.
The Jackets have two more tests this week as they face Pontotoc today on the road and host Tupelo on Thursday.