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Ole Miss counts on balance, experience

By CHUCK LANDIS - clandis@chronicle-tribune.com

GAS CITY - The Mississinewa boys' tennis team is making things difficult for their coach Bruce Fleming.

No, they are not being unruly or argumentative, but they are causing him headaches nonetheless. Preseason practices have been ultra-competitive and complicating to Fleming's attempts to set up the lineup ahead of Monday's season opener against Bluffton.

Fortunately, Fleming still is dealing with the same seven players who a year ago led the Indians to a 13-8 finish and third-straight Central Indiana Conference championship. Ole Miss then pushed Marion hard in the sectional final before dropping a 3-2 decision.

"These guys are forcing us to have a dynamic lineup," Fleming said Thursday afternoon. "They are just taking turns beating each other and not making it easy for us. I can't keep everybody in the same position because somebody is always beating somebody that was ahead of them before.

"That's a good thing, but it's going to make it tough for us to settle on a lineup early on," he continued.

The Indians weren't just young - they were practically babies. Last year's sectional varsity lineup consisted of three juniors and four freshmen, and they are all back, a year older and more mature and ready to flourish against a competitive schedule.

No. 1 singles is the only set position with senior Conner Murphy returning for a second-straight year. John Oliver and Hayden Rawley filled the No. 2 and 3 spots as freshmen, and classmate Ethan Sample is vying for a singles spot in the preseason. 

Murphy has a 40-26 career record entering his fourth varsity season. Chandler Morrison (No. 1 doubles) and Mason Christensen (No. 2 doubles) are the other senior returnees, and Josiah Stark is a fourth senior contending for a varsity spot.

"Conner's developed a few weapons that he didn't have last year and still has things to work on," Fleming said. "But he's coming in with a great attitude and he's a great leader for the whole team.

"Chandler Morrison is playing pretty well and I'm excited to see what he can do," he added. "We are looking for our seniors, Murphy, Morrison and Christensen, to be major contributors. 

Rounding out the returnees are sophomores Ryan Scott (No. 1 doubles) and Riley Fuqua (No. 2 doubles). Fleming said the lineup is interchangeable and every player is capable at singles and doubles.

"We've got eight or nine kids who are pretty close in talent and skill level," Fleming said, "so yeah, we can play a different lineup every match the whole season and be just as strong as the night before."

Ole Miss plays a challenging schedule that Fleming believes will prepare his team for the sectional tournament. Tournaments at Carroll (Fort Wayne) and Homestead feature mostly state-ranked teams, and a regular season match against the highly regarded Giants is always spirited.

"Two of the last three years we've played nine or 10 state-ranked teams ... and we get a few rounds of some good state level competition," Fleming said. "Marion has a few kids who can flat-out play. They're not going to be as deep this year, but they're going to be hard to beat because they're going to be solid at three spots."

The Indians also are seeking their first sectional title since 2016 and fifth overall, and after coming close last year would appear to be a strong contender this time.

"Everybody's ready and got their strokes down and we hope to learn a little bit as the season goes on that hopefully will kick us to another level," Fleming said. "We're not stepping out there thinking we have every match won, but we think every match is winnable and we've got to earn it."