At times, a short postseason seemed certain — a common fate for young teams trying find their varsity way.
But when the 2015 regular season ended, the Center Grove girls tennis team had broken several youthful habits and rode momentum into the state tournament.
By the time the ride ended, the Trojans were ranked No. 12 in the state, were sectional and regional champs and were, with every starter expected back, projected for a bigger and better 2016.
Now that it’s here, and every starter is back, projections haven’t dimmed a bit.
If anything, they’ve soared.
“Seeing how far we got in the tournament last year really motivated all of us to put in more time in the offseason than in past years,” senior doubles player Madison Smeathers said. “We realize what’s in our reach.”
What’s in reach, if all goes according to plan, is advancement to the IHSAA Girls Tennis State Finals. The Trojans came close last year after a 3-2 semistate loss to Terre Haute South.
Buoyed by the strong finish, which included a six-match winning streak heading into the semistate, the Trojans dedicated their offseason to making an even stronger postseason bid this time.
“We’re a totally returning team. It’s more motivation to get as or farther than last year,” junior singles player Maddie Weeks. “I feel like we’ll go pretty far.”
Ranked No. 19 heading into Wednesday’s first round of the Johnson County Tournament, the Trojans are off to a 3-2 start. Their losses have come against top-ranked Carmel and No. 2 North Central, Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference rivals that are expected to contend for the state championship.
Although the defeats give Center Grove’s record the look of mediocrity, veteran coach Debby Burton said she knows the Trojans are anything but an average team.
Time will tell how far they advance in the state tournament, but based on what she’s seen so far, Burton likes their chances of reaching the state finals for what would only be the second time history.
Center Grove’s only appearance was in 2010.
“First of all, I’m really excited about the number of girls on our team that played tennis after the (2015) season was over,” said Burton, whose team finished 15-8 last season. “The amount of hours that were in by the number of girls in the offseason, that’s always a good thing.
“I’m trying to keep them focused on one match at time, just going one day at a time, not looking ahead of themselves.”
Center Grove’s returning singles starters sophomore Isabella Schoolcraft and juniors Katelyn Gray and Weeks. They played Nos. 1, 2 and 3 last season, respectively.
Besides Smeathers, the doubles returners are junior Cassidy Hardin and sophomores Bailey Sammons and Carleigh Hardin. Smeathers and Cassidy Hardin were No. 1 last season. Sammons and Carleigh Hardin teamed at No. 2.
Although ever starter is back, the starting lineup still is fluid. Burton expects that to be the case for the foreseeable future as she experiments with different combinations.
“We’re progressing. We haven’t really come up with an absolute decision about our lineup because we have a lot of options,” Burton said. “There’s a lot of talent. Just figuring all that out, especially in the doubles, that’s hard sorting that out.
“But we’re feeling good. The girls are really focused, and they’ve set really high expectations.”
Repeating as county champions is among the expectations.
Seeded No. 1, the Trojans won’t play until Saturday’s semifinals. They’ll meet the winner of the Whiteland/Edinburgh match.
“We’ve always appreciated (the county) tournament. It brings the team together. It gives them some energy,” Burton said. “It means something to the girls to win it and compete really well in that. They have a lot of pride in that.
“I know they’re looking forward to playing in that tournament.”
Weeks confirms that they are.
“It’s really big, because in my first two years we always lost to Greenwood, so it was a major goal last year,” Weeks said. “Now, we don’t want to give it back.”
What: Johnson County Girls Tennis Tournament
Where: Semifinal and championship matches at Whiteland
Wednesday’s first-round matches: 5 p.m., Match 1, Edinburgh at Whiteland; 5 p.m., Match 2, Indian Creek at Franklin
Saturday’s semifinals: 9 a.m., Center Grove vs. winner of Match 1; 9 a.m., Greenwood vs. winner of Match 2.
Saturday’s championship match: 30 minutes after the conclusion of the last semifinal