The 2020 girls tennis season came to a bitter end at regionals. Due to KSHSAA COVID-19 protocols, the number of regional qualifiers was cut from six to four. Facing top talent like Manhattan and Washburn Rural, it put a dagger into a promising season.
Despite the disappointing end, there was plenty of improvement across the board for the squad. With several returning players, head coach Dennis Burns will have to put on his lab coat to find the right chemistry for success amid tight competition for varsity spots.
Senior Charis Yager made significant strides for the Panthers last season and assumes the top player role in the doubles realm.
“Yager will be our top returning player,” Burns said. “She was a little behind on tennis but caught up so much ground last year and really started to figure this game out. Now the question is who to put with her in doubles.”
The challenge for Burns is finding the right partner for Yager to replace Lauren Towns. The Yager/Towns duo reached the state tournament in 2019 after finishing in the top six at regionals.
The options for her new partner are wide open and have yet to be set. Seniors Natalie Ulwelling, Bella Karel and Rebekah Walsh will be the three candidates to partner with Yager, and the remaining two will likely become the second pair of doubles teammates.
“Yager, Ulwelling, Karel and Walsh will likely be our four doubles partners,” Burns said. “It is just who is going to have chemistry with each other.”
The duo of Ulwelling/Karel worked together over the summer before last season and were partners at regionals last season. According to Burns, Karel was one of the most improved players from last season and he believes she will be eager to return to the court.
The competition for coveted singles varsity spots will be intense. Junior Chloe Pavlivan, who competed at the varsity level as a sophomore, will likely be ready to fight for the top spot on the varsity squad. Seniors Hailey Jeffery, Madison Jordan and Rebecca Kooser will be among the competition for varsity spots.
Sophomore Bianka Schultz made a splash in her freshman year and will be an underclassman that could be competing for a top spot.
“She is a good athlete, and I don’t think we know the ability that she has yet,” Burns said. “I am interested to see if she is going to make the jump and go after somebody’s position.”
Burns anticipates the squad will be extremely competitive in league play but might struggle to dominate matches at the beginning of the season.
“We are going to have a lot of close matches,” Burns said. “We are not going to be a team that blows people away, at least at first. I think there is a good chance that our doubles teams will begin to separate themselves. In singles, we are going to have to grind out games, wear people out and stay in the match to give ourselves a chance to win.”
Similar to last season, the Panthers will have stiff competition and will face some of the top players in the state in the regular season with matches against Manhattan, Andover and Saint James. However, you won’t find Burns hosting a pity party for the team – he sees it as an opportunity to improve.
“You can’t discount the ability to play against good talent,” Burns said. “Our girls need to see that; it is a great talking point and it helps us going back to practice to know what we need to work on.”
The competition will be tight for this squad to fill out the roster. It will be a competitive first week of practice for the Panthers, and seeding matches have already begun.
“Quite a few of them have been working in the summer,” Burns said. “I am anxious to see where they are at to start the season.”