(photo by David Jenkins, Staff)
With virtually every player returning from last year's district championship team, head coach Brian James has to feel pretty good about his team's chances this season.
"On paper I think we're stronger heading into the season than what we were last year," said James. "I think we were rebuilding going into the season last year -- we lost several seniors and basically had four guys that never played a varsity match before. This year, we return everybody so I'd like think we'd be in a position to at least compete for a district title."
The Bulldogs, which went 8-4 in dual matches last year, return arguably the top tennis player in the area in senior Stephen Pobst.
Pobst, a state qualifier last year, went 12-0 in his dual matches and is looking even better this season.
"He's certainly one of the top players in the area and has been for several years now," said James. "He's such a hard worker. I've been around a lot of tennis players since my high school days and he works harder than any kid I've ever seen. He's always trying to improve himself. Even if he's not playing, he's doing sprint-work or he runs a mile after practice. It's nice to see a kid that dedicated and have such lofty expectations and goals for himself."
The Bulldogs also return the state qualifying doubles team of junior Ryne Vickery and sophomore Peter Jones, who were also the team's No. 3 and No. 4 singles players a year ago.
That gives James three players with state playoff experience, to go along with an overall experienced team.
"It's an enjoyable trip and an enjoyable experience for all of us," said James. "I'm very optimistic, but I'd like to think we could send some if not just as many. Those guys have all been there and they know what to expect. A lot of them last year played in their first district tournament.
"Realistically we've set a goal of repeating as the district champions. We'd like to do very well in all of our dual meets and we'd like to have a good record there. And we want to just keep improving as the season goes on."
The Bulldogs' top three players are pretty set in Pobst, senior Adam Hahs and Vickery.
But after that it's pretty wide open.
Seniors Aaron Senter and Garrett Lambert both played among the top six last year and have the most experience.
Also competing are senior Ben Jones, junior Ryan Davis and sophomores Jones, Chris Robey, Kyle Weeks, Kyle Howard, Ryan Dukes, Tyler Powell and Michael LaPlant. Freshman Marc Leible also will be vying for a spot.
"We've got some different looks that we could give," said James. "That makes for good practices when you've got good competition like that. Even the guys that were varsity last year know they've got guys behind them that can really push them and make them better. It's just good for the program all together when you've got competition for your spots."
Another area where the Bulldogs will be strong is in the leadership department, as James has five seniors at his disposal.
"That's a good number to have," said James. "Those guys have all played varsity except for Ben, and he's played on his own quite a bit. But the other four have been through the wars and they're battle-tested. That's always good to have that kind of experience returning."
Sikeston will open the season March 23 in the Farmington Tournament. The first home match won't be until April 4 against Cape Central.