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The start of regular season matches this week could not come soon enough for the Prout girls tennis team.
With a large core of returning players, it is not practice, but actual play, particularly early in the season, that will be pivotal for the Crusders as they look to improve upon last seasonâ€™s 4-8 finish.
â€śWeâ€™re not young age wise, I think weâ€™re young tennis experience wise,â€ť says Crusaders coach Steven Matzner. â€śThe kids are good. They take lessons, they take clinics, but they donâ€™t get that competitive experience that a lot of kids in Division I get. They may have the strokes, hopefully they have the game to go along with it, but sometimes you have to develop that from playing matches.
â€śIâ€™m pleased with what weâ€™ve done in practice. Weâ€™ve done a lot of drills, weâ€™ve work extremely hard to hone the skills of the kids. Some of the kids didnâ€™t play a lot of tournaments over the summer, some of them did, so we had a little catch-up work to do. I think the kids that were behind have caught up somewhat and weâ€™ve done a lot of skill development trying to get them stronger, but thereâ€™s still a long way to go.â€ť
Though there are a number of returning members from last yearâ€™s squad, Prout will have a much different look at the top of their lineup when they return to action, as only senior Ryan McGowan returns from last yearâ€™s singles lineup, stepping in to the No. 1 singles spot after spending her junior year playing at No. 4.
Joining her at the top of the rotation are seniors Katie Burke, Claudia Gramlich and Grace Lambrecht, all of whom played on Proutâ€™s doubles teams in 2012, but open this season playing No. 2 through 4 singles.
Currently paired together based on intra-squad matches early in the preseason to determine the teamâ€™s singles ladder, seniors Sarah Motta and Jess Winward will open the year as the No. 1 doubles team, while Catherine Small and Talia Sweenor start at No. 2. The doubles teams, however, much like the Crusaders as a whole, are still a work in progress as some players adjust to playing with a partner for the first time and Matzner looks for the right combination of players to solidify the backend of his lineup.
As the team tries to find itself this fall, the goals early in the season will be for the Crusaders to develop their games beyond what is done on the practice court and begin to understand how different and competitive match play can be.
â€śI think the competitive edge for any of these kids, no matter what team theyâ€™re on, is big,â€ť Matzner says. â€śâ€¦I want to see competitive sets from everybody. We could lose a match, but if the sets were 6-4â€™s, 7-5, maybe even some 6-3â€™s, that means weâ€™re in the ballpark, but if thereâ€™s a lot of 6-0â€™s, 6-1â€™s, it means we have a ways to go.
â€śI look for the competitiveness within the points. To see how long the rallies are, see if weâ€™re getting blown off the court on points or if the kids are hanging tough with their opponents.â€ť
If that competition experience is really what the Crusaders need to get their games in order for a good season, they are certainly going to get a good dose of it early with some solid competition in their fist week of matches.
According to Matzner, it may be too early to make any sort of real assessment on what to expect out of his squad this season, but these early matches will be truly telling as to whether or not the Crusaders will rebound in 2013.
â€śYou donâ€™t have a lot of time to get up to competitive speed, itâ€™s only a 12-match season. If you get off to a poor start, youâ€™re in trouble,â€ť Matzner says, â€śbut having said that, we play South Kingstown first, then we go right to LaSalle, so weâ€™re going to find out real quick how strong we are and how much experience we need to get over the next four matches. As things get rolling a bit you can see where your team is, I would say four matches in weâ€™ll see where we kind of belong.
â€śThe first four matches will tell me where peopleâ€™s abilities lie and what kind of experience theyâ€™ve had. I know what theyâ€™ve had over the summer, but it will give me a chance to see them play in a competitive situation and weâ€™ll have to evaluate what the kids need to do.â€ť
Prout was scheduled to opened the regular season at home on Tuesday, taking on neighboring South Kingstown (results unavailable at press time).
The Crusders will wrap up their opening week of the season on Wednesday when they travel north to face 2012 state champion LaSalle at 3:45 p.m.