BY JOSH SIGLER KOKOMO TRIBUNE
---- — After 39 seasons and counting as the boys tennis coach at Taylor High School, Dave Wise is entering his 24th season leading the Titan girls.
And, it’s safe to say when he stares out across the fence at his opposing coaches and players, there aren’t many faces he doesn’t recognize due to his vast experience around the Howard County tennis circuit.
This season, he’ll be seeing a face especially familiar to him, as his daughter, Kathie Layden, takes over the girls program at Northwestern.
“They used to say ‘Imitation is the highest form of flattery,’” Wise said. “I’m really honored they decided to coach,” noting that his son, Mike, was previously that boys coach at Northwestern.
”Kathie understands sports so well,” Dave added. “I don’t know that we missed more than one or two of her athletic contests during her career, and this just seems like an extension of her playing days, because you just get caught up watching her coach and enjoying that part of it.”
Wise helped guide his daughter to a 67-11 record during her four years as the Titans’ No. 1 singles player. In Layden’s senior year in 1994, Taylor went 16-2 as a team and won a regional title before falling to Homestead in the semistate finals. She went 22-1 as an individual that year, running through the season undefeated until a loss in that final match with Homestead.
”In high school, tennis was her third sport,” Dave said. “Basketball was obviously No. 1, but she was an all-conference player all four years in volleyball, too. Tennis is that way for a lot of people. Good athletes pick up tennis easily just because of athletic ability. And, it’s a nice change of pace to work with kids individually rather than the team concept of plays and defenses. And the other thing is that her daughters are going to be good tennis players, too, so we’ll enjoy that.”
Dave currently serves as an assistant for Layden in the girls basketball program at Northwestern, but on April 23 when the Titans host the Purple Tigers in a tennis match with Mid-Indiana Conference implications, they’ll be opposing coaches for the first time since 1999, when Layden led the Eastern girls tennis program.
”My dad and I have always had a special bond through sports, just in general,” Layden said. “He coached me in a lot of things growing up. And now being able to coach with him during the basketball season and against him obviously in tennis, it’s a very friendly, competitive game. It’s just something special with our family, and something we’ll enjoy.”
The following are season outlooks for each Howard County girls tennis squad, in alphabetical order.
The Comets are eager to get the season under way with six varsity mainstays back for another year after going 13-6 and sharing the Mid-Indiana Conference crown for the first time in 2013.
Eastern reached the sectional championship round for the fifth straight season before falling to Kokomo in the finals last season.
“I think we’re at a pretty good place right now,” coach Pat Rice said. “We’re pretty deep and return quite a bit from last year, which obviously helps. We’re expecting a pretty good season, and I think that’s becoming the norm out here in Greentown, which is pretty exciting.”
Junior Courtney Clark returns for her third season at No. 1 singles, while senior Riley Kanable returns to the No. 2 singles spot for the third straight year.
Junior Sarah Sharp, a varsity newcomer, will begin the year in the No. 3 single spot. Classmate Megan Dean is expected to compete for time at No. 3 singles and possibly rotate in at doubles, as well.
Seniors sisters Claire and Marie Holkenbrink will make up the No. 1 doubles team. Claire played No. 3 singles the last two seasons, while Marie played No. 2 doubles the two years previous. This is their first chance to compete as a tandem.
Junior Marissa Evenson returns for her second year at No. 2 doubles, where she will be joined by junior Laura White, a move-in from Texas.
Senior Rachel Manfred played with Evenson at No. 2 doubles a season ago, but tore her ACL during soccer season in the fall. Manfred was recently cleared to return to full activities, and Rice expects her to return to the varsity lineup at some point.
“We have very high goals,” Rice added. “We would love to win the MIC on our own because we had to share it last year. We play a very difficult MIC schedule to start. We play all of the favorites right up front, so that means you have to be on point right as you start the season. I can tell you we had a very bad taste in our mouths last year leaving Kokomo after that sectional final. We didn’t play very good tennis in any of the matches in the sectional last year. I think the girls are eager to get back there and prove we’re better than what we showed last year.”
Eastern opens the season tonight at Peru. The Comets’ match with Cass, which was scheduled for Tuesday, was postponed.
Wildkat alum Natalie Rainey had a season to remember in her inagural campaign as head coach, leading Kokomo to an 11-9 record and a sectional title.
“I’m excited to be back for Year 2,” Rainey said. “Things are a lot smoother the second time around. The girls have been working extremely hard. We started hitting in January at the tennis center in Greentown. The kids are excited to be back, and have really set their sights on being able to retain that sectional title. I think they’re pretty focused at this point.”
Kokomo lost three varsity players to graduation, but the sting of those departures has numbed a bit with a pair of foreign-exchange students who will enter the fold.
”I’ll never forget that first practice,” Rainey explained. “We have four foreign exchange students come out and two of them are playing varsity, so that put a big smile on my face. I just thought ‘Our whole season just changed.’ We got two welcomed surprises that came. They’re really talented tennis players that are going to help us out a lot.”
Junior Amanda Tran moves up to the No. 1 singles position after play at the No. 2 spot last season.
Japanese exchange student Emily Morita, a sophomore, will take over the No. 2 spot, while sophomore Rachel Stout returns at No. 3.
Senior Stephanie Kailey returns at No. 1 doubles, where she will be joined by classmate AnneMarie Balsbaugh, who played No. 2 doubles as a junior.
Junior Regina DelBosque, a junior from Mexico, will start the season at No. 2 doubles with classmate Sunnih Flores, a varsity newcomer.
Senior Brittny Balog, junior Alex Anderson and sophomore Maranda Douglas will also push for varsity court time as the season gets under way Thursday at Twin Lakes.
“We could move people around, and I think it could change depending on what we choose to do,” Rainey said. “It’s fun because you have a lot of options, but we have to find that fit. And hopefully we find that right fit and peak at the right time. … I think you’ll see us continue to improve in each match that we play.”
Layden inherits a roster full of varsity-experienced players from last season’s 5-12 squad.
“I’m really excited to be working with such a great group of girls,” Layden said. “We have a ton of experience returning, and I see a ton of leadership from the upperclassmen already. We have seven girls who return with varsity experience. With the competition in the area as far as the conference and the sectional, I think having that leadership and experience returning from a year ago will be huge.”
Senior Emily Harshman returns at No. 1 singles, as does junior Alexis Hungate to the No. 2 spot.
Juniors Gabby Matly and Kady Whitehead are in competition for the No. 3 singles position after rotating in on some varsity matches as sophomores.
Senior Madison Wells returns to the No. 1 doubles team, where she will be joined by junior Megan Floyd, who also rotated in at varsity at times a season ago.
Senior Erica Plutat also returns with varsity experience, and will man the No. 2 doubles spot with freshman Lauren Miller.
”The amount of varsity experience the girls have is huge, I think, when you talk about level of play,” Layden added. “A lot of them have played a lot of tennis in the offseason. Emily Harshman has put in a lot of time at the tennis facility and taking lessons, and it shows right now. I know we have tough competition in the area, but we’re just anxious to get started with matches so we can gauge our ability to our competition. Goal-wise, I think we would like to compete for top conference spots, and obviously the sectional.”
Northwestern opens its season Thursday at Eastern.
Wise was set to move his two strongest players, seniors Jessica Fox and Maria Owens, into the Nos. 1 and 2 singles spots after they played Nos. 2 and 3 a season ago, helping Taylor to a 5-7 record.
But Owens will miss the season after a knee injury, leaving the Titans a bit thinner than Wise had originally anticipated.
“I wish I had more experience,” Wise lamented. “I haven’t had many girls who have put in the extra time in the fall, but [Jessica] played a lot of tennis. I think people are going to be a little surprised at how much better she is this year. She can hit with the boys.
”The bad thing with Maria being out is that Jessica and Maria played junior high tennis together, and they played doubles together as freshmen and sophomores,” Wise added. “They would be the two girls hitting together on the first court. The injury took that out of play, but it certainly opened up things for other girls.”
Senior Lauren Shively will step into the No. 2 singles spot after rotating at Nos. 1 and 2 doubles last season.
After that, Wise has seven players competing for the five final varsity spots, including juniors Heather Street, Molly Peterson, Lexis Davis, Aly Davis and Heidi Bonus, along with sophomores Katie Bunce and Mallory Maris.
“With the experience we have, most of them have played … but those girls haven’t had much varsity success,” Wise said. “So, we’re just looking for improvement. We weren’t really competitive and had a lot of 3-2 matches last year. We don’t have that depth this year, so I don’t know where I’m going to get my second and third point. Hopefully, as the season goes on, some other teams have lost seniors and have some younger girls up there, and we’ll be able to match up.”
Taylor visits Peru Thursday to open the season.
Like Rainey, Panthers coach Amy Messer feels better equipped to tackle the challenges as a varsity coach in Year 2 after guiding the squad to a 4-8 mark last season.
“This being my second year, I definitely know what to expect now with working with the girls, and seeing and getting to know most of the teams we’ve played,” Messer said. “I’m seeing those aspects now as a coach instead of as a player, so I’m definitely more comfortable with that now.”
Freshman Brooke Jansen will step into the No. 1 singles position for the Panthers, taking the place of Allison Lindley, who moved on to play golf at the University of Iowa.
Junior Allie Ault will play No. 2 singles after rotating between varsity and JV last year. Fellow junior Baylee Harbaugh returns to the No. 3 post.
Senior Molly Shoffner and junior Cora Johnson return to the No. 1 doubles spot. And seniors Macey Bickford and Ashlyn Jones will take over the No. 2 doubles duties. Bickford has rotated in for varsity matches in the past.
“We’re responding great as a team because our leadership has been tremendous out of our four seniors,” Messer said. “I’m really excited for this season. It will present us challenges especially early with the weather this winter, but I think we’re going to come out strong. Our experience with our upperclassmen is going to show as we get into our first couple matches.”
Western opens its season Thursday at Rossville.