Coming off dominant sectional performances and top-five finishes in the state tournament a year ago, the Cullman varsity tennis squads were primed to start off this season with one goal in mind — finish what they started.
So far, so good.
The boys have raced out to an 11-1 start, while the girls are right behind them at 9-2.
Coach Nathan Bates said his teams are right where he wants them to be at this juncture in the season.
“I’m very proud of how they’re doing so far this year,” he said. “We were fortunate enough to beat some good teams, and I really think we’ve improved.”
Both squads lost two players from last season but neither has missed a step. The girls took the biggest hit — losing Allison Howell to graduation — but have picked up right where last year’s second-place team finished off.
“She (Allison) was one of the best players to ever come through Cullman,” Bates said of his former star. “It’s hard to replace someone like that but Hannah (Cornelius) is doing a great job so far this season.”
Despite Cornelius’ success, Bates said there’s a learning process for players who don’t have a year at No. 1 under their belts.
“Allison played two years at the No. 1 position, so she had that experience,” he said. “With Hannah, there’s a little bit of a learning curve where you take things you’ve learned early in the season and use them to improve yourself when the big matches start to come.”
Bates, however, is confident his new No. 1 will be up to the task when she steps onto the court.
“She’s already played a lot of good top players from other schools,” the coach said. “She’s right there with all of them.”
Cornelius is joined by a talented group, including McKenzie Bussman and Olivia Sharpton, both of whom played at lower, less pressure-filled seeds a season ago.
“McKenzie was at No. 4 last year and Olivia was a No. 6,” Bates said. “Now they are our No. 2 and 3. They’re both doing a great job. The whole team is really.”
While the girls are continuing their recent run of success, it’s the boys squad that’s really come on for Bates.
After a great 2011 campaign that saw his squad squander a golden opportunity late in the year, Bates said he’s seen his players use that as extra motivation over the past two years.
“We just didn’t get it done then,” he said. “It left a bad taste in my mouth, and I know it left one in theirs, too. They tried to get the most out of their next season and they did.”
The Bearcats finished a team-best fourth in the state tournament last April after losing a whopping seven seniors from the 2011 squad.
“That’s probably the most proud I’ve ever been of any team I’ve ever coached,” Bates said. “To accomplish what we did from where we started out, that was great.”
Luke Bowden, Clint Watson, Baylor Adams, Jacob and Matthew Davis, Ryan Hunt and Jacob Lambert have this year’s version of the Black and Gold off to one of the best starts in school history, defeating last year’s Class 5A state champion Muscle Shoals along the way. Their only loss of the season so far was to Class 6A Huntsville.
“We’ve won a lot of close matches this year,” Bates said. “I think since they are learning to how win those close matches, they’re developing a mental toughness, which is big.”
The coach is hoping that toughness pays off for his team off the last three and a half weeks of the season.
“We are fighting through a lot of adversity this year,” he said. “We have a lot of talent on both teams. We want to continue to get better and be in the position to doing our very best when it comes state tournament time.”
‰ Jake Winfrey can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 258 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.