They may have graduated six seniors from a Henlopen South championship squad last season, but after seeing their biggest turnout in years, the Indian River High School girls’ tennis team is ready to defend the title behind an array of new talent and new stars ready to step up.
“There’s a lot of underclassmen. We only have two seniors, but we have a lot of exhibition players from last year that are moving into varsity spots,” said fourth-year head coach Stefanie Riddle. “Just in the preliminary lineup, we’ve got half of our exhibition players moving up to varsity, but they’ve all really improved. I really think that they’re going to be able to help us.”
While the team said goodbye to their top two players from 2016 — first-singles player Hannah Shultie and second-singles player Kayla Huebner — they do return sophomore Alexa Fitz to lead the charge.
Fitz will make the jump to first-singles this season, after holding down the third-singles spot as a freshman in 2016 and advancing all the way to a fourth-place finish at last year’s Henlopen Conference tournament.
The squad also graduated first-doubles player Tiffany Cain but gets back her doubles partner, Mariayna Lovelace, who looks likely to get the bump to second-singles for her senior campaign.
“They were really consistent players, and it’s going to be tough not being able to rely on them to pull out some wins,” said Lovelace of last year’s senior leaders. “Whatever’s best for the team I’m willing to do. If I do end up playing singles, it’ll be a challenge, because I’m used to doubles. But whatever is best for the team I’m excited to do.”
One of the key exhibition players stepping up so far this pre-season has been junior Priya Patel, who Riddle said could take over the third-singles spot by the team’s first match on Wednesday, March 22, (after Coastal Press time).
With 17 players trying out for the squad this year, not all of them could make the final roster, which was both encouraging for the program but understandably difficult for the coaches at the same time.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever had to do that, which is great for the program — but, as a coach, it’s not something fun to do,” Riddle said. “I think we have a lot of athletes that haven’t played tennis before, but they all work hard, they have good sportsmanship, and they’re really starting to learn the game.”
Also joining the squad this year will be Susan Riddell, who joins her daughter to help bring new players along and get them ready for their run at this year’s South title.
“It’s so nice. The girls love her. They call her ‘Mom,’” said the younger Riddle with a laugh, of the new coaching addition. “They’re all encouraging, and we’re all excited. The girls look good, they want to learn, and I think we’ve got a good shot this year.”
“We just want to be the best we can be,” added Lovelace. “We’re excited for the season.”
The season was set to officially get under way in a divisional home match against Lake Forest on Wednesday, March 22, (after Coastal Point press time), with the Indians set to travel to Milford on Friday, March 24, before returning home for their third straight South matchup, against Seaford on Monday, March 27, at 4 p.m.