Strength of schedule is not just a term for March Madness bracket projection time. It comes into play for individual-based team sports such as tennis as well. Not being afraid to hit the road and suffer a loss against an elite opponent is many times a stop on the path to greatness.
Third-ranked Floyd Central has a victory against No. 5 Indianapolis North Central and the Highlanders will have an opportunity to knock off teams ahead of them in the standings against the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the state this weekend in the Zionsville Invitational.
Floyd Central will play No. 2 Homestead and top-ranked Carmel in addition to matches with other ranked teams.
It’s no secret the Highlanders’ sights this season are on making back-to-back trips to the state finals. In that respect, coach Robert Kleeman’s players are looking forward to the challenge ahead this weekend to get a clearer picture of where they stand against the state’s elite competition.
Senior Connor Mason, who was promoted to No. 1 singles after playing No. 2 last season, is looking forward to the challenge.
He’ll face defending state champion Presley Thieneman of Carmel and second-team all-state singles player Daniel Gilbert of Homestead.
“Obviously, the way I’m playing right now I think I can at least compete. I think it’s going to be good matches,” Mason said.
Kleeman described Mason’s progression through his four years at Floyd Central as a steady climb to the team’s top spot.
“He’s never not played a varsity match since freshman year. He played No. 2 doubles as a freshman, No. 3 singles as a sophomore and No. 2 singles as a junior,” Kleeman said. “Each year the team has gotten better so it’s an example of him working hard and really maturing a lot as a tennis player and a person. He used to have some issues controlling his emotion. He puts in a lot of work.
“He’s probably the hardest worker I know, ever. He’s put himself in position to play in college next year. He’s come a long way and put himself in that upper echelon of players in the state.”
The Highlanders did lose some key players in the off-season, with Lucas Sakamaki now playing at the University of Southern Indiana and Jordan Wilson’s departure prior to the season.
Gabe Cora is having a strong season as the new No. 2 singles player and Jake Thompson is making his impact known at No. 3 singles, picking up a 6-1, 6-1 win at No. 3 singles against North Central.
Kleeman said Cora has “stepped up his level” of play. Mason agreed.
“Gabe has stepped up and played really well. Jordan would have been good but we want guys that want to be here. Gabe has stepped up big time for us. I like having him at 2,” Mason said. “It’s a great group of guys. We don’t have a guy that has a bad attitude. They all work pretty hard.”
The Highlanders’ doubles pairings of seniors Alex Poe and Eric Whitehouse at No. 1 started the year together and are sitting 8-1. Aaron Seay and Joe Lincoln at No. 2 have proven to be a formidable since their pairing in winning against North Central.
Poe and Whitehouse suffered their only loss in a three-set tiebreaker to North Central’s Ajay Mahenthiran — who was part of a first-team All-State doubles team in 2018 — and Max Simmel.
‘We’ve both got really solid ground strokes and I think that’s what gives us an advantage over most teams. And we’re both really solid players at the net. And we can put balls away. We can compete with anyone because of our talent,” Poe said.
It’s an audacious pairing of one player who is a veteran of varsity doubles in Poe — a second-team All-State doubles performer last year — and Whitehouse, who has played varsity singles the past three seasons.
“That was something we put together late out of necessity. You wouldn’t necessarily call Eric Whitehouse a natural doubles player,” Kleeman said. “There’s different things we have to do to make that work. It works. We’re doing it our own way. We’re tailoring to what he does well and their strengths together as a team vs. traditional doubles: playing more points from the baseline, we’re being patient, we’re being a little more defensive, which is something we don’t always do. But it’s worked out pretty well so far.”
Whitehouse said it’s helped his skills development to play doubles.
“I’ve really liked it a lot. I feel like it’s helped my overall game a lot,” Whitehouse said, adding the pair are continuing to gel together. “We can serve pretty good. Our returns throughout the season have gotten a lot better so that’s really helped us out a lot, especially against the better teams.”
The entire squad is putting in a strong week of practice in preparation for some of those elite teams this weekend.
“I’m excited for the opportunity. Winning these matches this weekend will prove ourselves,” Poe said.
“We know it won’t be easy,” Whitehouse added. “We’ll have to bring out energy, not get down. We’ll have to play every point very, very hard and see what happens.”
Kleeman would love to see some success this weekend but it’s also just part of an ongoing schedule against the best talent in the state as the Highlanders do whatever it takes to sharpen their skills for the state tournament.
“In the next three weeks, we’re playing six or seven of the other top ten teams. This is where we kick it into gear as far as our schedule goes,” Kleeman said.