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Giants primed for another strong showing this season

By CHUCK LANDIS - clandis@chronicle-tribune.com

Since assuming the Marion boys’ tennis coaching position 12 years ago, Doug Porter has established a standard of success that is unmatched among other Giants athletic programs.

The Giants have won seven of eight sectional championships, regional titles in 2010 and ‘11, and last year finished atop the North Central Conference for the first time since 2013. 

Having lost one player to graduation, they appear poised for another championship season.

Yet, the one loss is Riley Worland, the Giants’ No. 1 singles player and four-year standout who headed just down the road to play for Indiana Wesleyan University. Porter knows replacing a player of Worland’s talents isn’t an easy task.

“It’s difficult to replace someone the caliber of Riley, so whoever steps into the No. 1 singles spot is going to have some big shoes to fill and face some tough competition,” Porter said Tuesday. “But we’ve got a load of experience coming back and, hopefully, we’ll draw on that as the season progresses.”

Grant County boys’ tennis has been very competitive thanks in no small part to the stability of their programs. Bruce Fleming begins his 16th year at Mississinewa, and last year the Indians battled the Giants hard in the sectional semifinals before dropping a 3-2 decision. Tony Pitt starts his 13th year at Madison-Grant and also has six of seven varsity players back.

Mississinewa is the first to debut Monday at Bluffton, and Madison-Grant follows Tuesday with a home match against Maconaquah. Marion opens Aug. 15 with a match at Yorktown.

The Giants scrimmage Monday at Delta before starting the season, the same Delta team that eliminated them in a spirited 3-2 regional finals match last season. The two teams have played in the regional seven straight years with Delta winning the last six times.

Marion’s returnees from a 16-3 team include junior Noah Lyons and sophomore Vikram Oddiraju who played No. 2 and 3 singles a year ago. At the end of the year, senior Jonathan Walts and sophomore Jack Fauser were at No. 1 doubles, while senior Ethan Eltzroth and junior Caleb Spitzer formed the No. 2 team.

Who will replace Worland and what the lineup will look like are questions Porter is only just beginning to resolve. 

“We have no idea who the seventh varsity player will be right now,” he said. “That could be from several players and we’re really just starting the process this week of playing challenge matches to figure it out.

“A lot of guys have put some time into it and so we’ll see how that pans out,” Porter added. “Whoever that is will make a difference if that player is predominantly better in singles or doubles and that could affect the rest of the lineup.”

Lyons and Oddiraju will move up to the top two singles spots, although Porter said their positions will be determined in the challenge matches. Ideally, he would like to keep both doubles teams intact where their experience could be an asset. Yet, Fauser could return to singles after playing there part of last year.

“(Lyons and Oddiraju) have battled all summer long and haven’t challenged yet in practices,” Porter said. “But they are pushing each other and as a coach that’s what you like to see - they are making each other better and raised the level of their game and playing really well right now.

“Vikram has really matured some from his freshman year and doing good things on the court,” Porter continued. “Noah played lot of tennis this summer, a lot of tournaments, and I’m excited to see what the season has in store for them.”

Challenging for the one varsity opening are Tristan Galeon, Cole Madden and Soren Bruehler as well as a pair of freshmen, Alex Spitzer and Brady Buckler.

At Ole Miss, Fleming said goodbye to a senior class that delivered a sectional title in 2016 and four consecutive Central Indiana Conference championships. Paxton Sample graduated with 67 match victories, the second-most in program history, and Issac Torres ranked fifth all-time with 59 wins. Jerod May, who was injured and did not play his final season, also ranked in the top 10 with his 51 wins.

Torres (No. 1) and Sample (No. 2) were staples in singles while Seth Graves anchored the No. 1 doubles team in a 13-7 season where all seven losses came against state-ranked teams, including twice to Marion. Fleming has four junior lettermen but no seniors, and the remainder of his nine-player roster are all freshmen.

Conner Murphy will move from No. 2 singles to the top position, but Fleming said the remainder of the lineup is in flux. The other returnees are Chandler Morrison who played No. 1 doubles and Mason Christensen and Josiah Stark who formed the No. 2 doubles team.

“The only thing we know is Murphy will play No. 1 singles and that’s it,” Fleming said. “We don’t know if Chandler will play singles or doubles, and we don’t know how many of those guys will get in the lineup. Besides Conner everybody else is pretty close to each other.

“The freshman will rotate in and get some experience,” he added. “They all can hit the ball, and none of them are going to step in and play No. 1 singles for us.”

Freshmen John Oliver and Ryan Scott are the most promising newcomers and could lock down regular positions. The other freshmen are Ethan Sample, Paxton’s brother, Hayden Rowley and Riley Fuqua.

“We’re going to have a hard time keeping Oliver out of the lineup, along with Scott,” Fleming said. “The rest are going to rotate (in the lineup). They are a good group, work really well and are great to be around.”

The Indians have a scrimmage Thursday at Lapel before embarking on their season.

“They’re going to get stronger and stronger,” Fleming said of his current team. “We don’t graduate anybody after this year so we’re looking every day for a lot of learning and increase their skills and learn to be comfortable on the court while we’re competing.

“Hopefully, by the mid to late part of the season we start to put it together,” he added.

Madison-Grant started 2017 with an almost all-new team but a strong finish produced an 11-11 season including a sectional runner-up finish to the Giants. The only graduation loss was Bailey McCord, the Argylls’ best player, who rotated between No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles as Pitt played with matchups.

The lineup strategy also gave senior Hayden Retherford experience at No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles, and sophomore Nick Evans also split time between No. 2 singles and doubles. Seniors Dillon Sneed, Tucker Robertson and Luke Wilson filled doubles positions, while sophomore Jackson Manwell settled into No. 3 singles as the year progressed.

Yet, Pitt informed the returnees when practices began that all positions were open.

“We have competition between a lot of athletes who know how to compete,” Pitt said. “I told the kids the first day where you played last year is irrelevant for this year. Just because you played last year doesn’t mean you have a spot for this year.

“We have a lot of kids on JV who really worked hard this summer and are really pushing some of those juniors and seniors, and in some cases surpassed them,” he added.

Pitt said sophomore Jace Gilman worked hard over the summer and is part of the mix for positions, and sophomores Eli Lutterman and Lance Wilson also are pushing the older players. As a result of all this competition, Pitt hopes the Argylls will have a balanced lineup.

“We’re looking to be competitive at all five positions and not relying on winning at just the three spots we needed to win the match,” he said. “Hopefully, by the end of the season we will be on right track for state tournament.

“In the early matches we’ll look to try some things out and by the Madison County tourney we’ll be pretty comfortable with our lineup,” Pitt said.

The Argylls have a scrimmage today at Peru before getting their season started Monday.