By Jonathan Pleasant
The Johnson County High School Tennis program has gotten off to a very good start this season. Winning three out of four of their early matches on the boys team, and pulling off big singles and doubles wins on the girls team even against teams like East and Unicoi, in ten years of coaching, Steve Nave has seen few groups as strong as this one.
Im very happy with how the season is going, Nave said. To be three and one is about as good as weve ever been. The boys are all doing well now, but theyre older and its really hard to win unless you are a junior or a senior. Still, the girls are a 100 times better this year. They listen; theyre doing the things we tell them. It helps having Tim Tugman here. He helps tremendously with the girls and it shows. Theyre getting so much better. It happens every fourth year. Were behind because they come in and theyve never played before, but the four sophomores are dedicated to playing and thats what it takes.
Senior Timmy Bellamy has been leading the way for the boys team, pulling out wins in every match except a narrow loss against Unicoi. Ryan Whitener has been working with him on doubles and although the duo have not paired up for the past couple of years, they have been able to quickly knock off the rust and pull out some big victories, including a home match last week against Sullivan East.
Timmy still has a chance to be Player of the Year, Nave said. He lost yesterday to Unicoi but hell have the chance to make that up. Hes playing great and I expect him to be there in the district finals. Speaking about Bellamy and Whiteners doubles against East, Nave stated, They started out today slow in singles but then they played really well in doubles. I guess it was the best doubles match they have played so far. It just takes a while to get used to each other. They really havent played together since they were freshmen so theyre just trying to get used to each other again, but they played really well today.
Not surprisingly, the Longhorns have another strong doubles team between brothers Travis and Mitchell Stockinger. Despite a couple years age difference, both have had strong performances on the courts this season, leaving Nave to count on them as well. The Stockingers have been playing really well too, Nave said. They really havent played together much either and it showed today, but they were down 4-0 and came back to win. Theyre a good compliment to each other. Travis is really good at net and Mitchell is good at baseline. I really like them playing together, and I think by the end of the year theyre going to be really tough.
Possibly the biggest surprise coming from the boys team has been the ongoing success of senior Joey Porter who has gone four games in a row without a loss. This streak was made all the more impressive by the fact that one of those wins was over conference rivals, Unicoi County.
Its been my best season out of all four years Ive played, said Porter. Ive really improved. Being my last year Ive been more disciplined and just have wanted to do better and Im proving that. Ive been so much more serious at practice. Ive worked harder, ran harder. I played Unicoi yesterday and won 9-7. It felt pretty good. I had a really good opponent, we were both nice to each other, played a good fair game, and it was just close enough that I won. Im so happy about it.
On the girls team most of the victories this season have come from sophomores Amber Brown and Dawn Lewis, who have also paired up to become the teams most successful doubles players. Last year Lewis was one of the only girls on the team to pull out a singles win, and already has one victory under her belt this season. Catching up to her friend, Brown has pulled off two singles wins so far, and together the girls have couple of doubles victories to their credit as well.
When asked about what has made such a big difference this early in the season, both Lewis and Brown credited it to hard work. Ive just spent a lot of time coming up here and practicing, Lewis said. Working on the weekends and trying to get better. Its fun, we have a really good time. I just like the sport.
Agreeing, Brown commented that more than anything it was her simple love of tennis that kept her motivated. I like coming up here and being in the environment that everyone is in”, said Brown. If you come up here angry you will leave happy, no doubt about it. Everyone expects you to do well, and youre pushing yourself to do well also. You want to be the best you can be, like anything else. We like playing with each other better. We rely on each other more.
Talking about their work together Lewis explained that it had a lot to do with being able to anticipate and compensate for one another. We have really great communication, Lewis said. I usually play back court better and Amber plays net better than I do, but we have really good communication. If one of us gets down we always bring the other person up.
Having just narrowly defeated a team from Sullivan East, Brown was also keen to point out her success with Lewis. They had some nice corner shots, Brown said. It shouldnt have been as close as it was but we held them off. Weve been working a lot on doubles, and Tim Tugman has been coming up a lot to help us. This year weve been working a lot together. We always help each other and communicate.
Despite the fact that Brown and Lewis have had the most actual wins this year, Coach Nave was also quick to point out that many of the other girls on the team have been improving by leaps and bounds as well, making this possibly the fastest progressing class he has had the opportunity to work with.
According to Nave, As far as wins, it is Amber and Dawn, but Krista Warren and Tori Israel have played really well all year. They havent gotten any wins, but its like I told them, theyre sophomores playing seniors. Their wins are going to come; they just have to be patient. Theyre getting so much better; I see it everyday. Every match they have gotten better and thats all we can ask for right now.
With nothing but improvement across the board and several strong matches already behind them, the future is bright for Longhorn Tennis. As always the toughest competition will likely be Unicoi and Elizabethton but with a little luck Johnson County will be right in the fray with them. Ultimately it will come down to the finals at the end of the season, but if the Longhorns continue to improve at their current rate, they will certainly be one of the top contenders.