When preseason tennis practice opened in early August, Evanston coach Joyce Chang Anderson almost felt like she was watching an entirely new team in action.
And that was even though the Wildkits welcome back 7 returning starters — 6 of them seniors. But the overall improvement of each individual from last year to this year has the Wildkits poised for what could be a breakthrough season for the girls program and is the reason Anderson is so encouraged by the talent on hand entering his sixth season at the helm.
Led by returning state doubles qualifiers Jessica Ampel and Abigail Moore, Evanston opened the 2015 campaign with a 6-2 victory over Elk Grove and Anderson expects more dual meet success to follow.
“The girls are all hitting much more confident. They’re stronger and they’re quicker, and they’re more relaxed on the court,” Anderson said. “And now they all have higher goals than just being on the varsity.
“I’m very excited about this group. Tryouts this year were extremely competitive, and this is definitely the most improved team I’ve had as a coach. The strength training we’ve done has helped a lot of them get stronger and we were able to beat Elk Grove because they’re just not as deep as we are.”
It’s been awhile since any ETHS tennis coach could make a statement like that one. Besides Ampel and Moore — who won one match out of three at last year’s Illinois High School Association state tournament — returning starters include seniors Julia Danson, Nora Ivey, Samantha Mulica, Beth Parcell and junior Katherine Mann.
Help will also come from two promising freshmen, Margot Connor and Valerie Abushevich, plus juniors Taylor Rosenthal, Maya Lazarus, Kathryn Halverson, Kiersa Berg and Eleanor Becker-Chiu.
Ampel and Moore will likely be the squad’s No. 1 doubles entry again by the time the postseason rolls around, although Ampel is the No. 1 singles player, too. “They’re both very strong players and we’ve talked with all of them about having an open mind about singles or doubles,” said Anderson. “They understand how difficult it can be in our sectional (as singles qualifiers) and I think they both enjoy playing doubles more. They’ve done a great job so far as co-capains, too (along with Parcell).
“Abbey has improved her strength and her quickness, and Jessica has added more spin to her serve and her groundstrokes, along with more strength and more power.”
Mann’s progress has resulted in a shakeup in the doubles lineup, at least early on. She’s moved up to the No. 2 slot along with partner Danson, with Ivey and Purcell at No. 3 doubles challenging for the top spots on a daily basis.
“Katherine has really improved, and that’s why we’ve made the change there,” said the coach. “She’s stronger and much more able to drive the ball consistently now. She’s a great competitor. And Julia is one of our most improved players, too. She’s been pretty open about the fact that she feels much more calm out there now, and doesn’t let the nerves get to her.”
The hard-serving, hard-hitting Connor has already landed a starting spot at No. 2 singles, although both she and Abushevich could ease their way into the doubles competition once they’ve adjusted to the strategy that is such a significant part of that game.
Freshmen rarely come into high school with much experience in doubles, but Anderson’s ability to teach the concepts and pair the right players together are the coach’s strengths in an area where they’re most needed.
“In many ways your impact as a coach can be better teaching doubles, instead of just putting your top two players together like some schools do,” Anderson said. “Elk Grove had two ranked singles players together against us at No. 1, but we (the team of Moore and Mulica) won because our girls are more comfortable when it comes to doubles strategy.
“I feel like I can teach them how to play together. We’ll have to wait and see which of the new players can adapt to doubles because if possible, we’d like to get two doubles teams to State this year. Our end goal is just to do better than we did last year, create some memorable moments and a better team dynamic. I really want to see the hard work they’ve all done pay off.”
The presence of so many veteran players will help Evanston deal with giving up any homecourt advantage until the new courts under construction at the south end of the school are ready for competition. The Wildkits will be forced to hold practices and dual meets at three separate locations but are hoping that the Lake Street courts will be ready for the dedication ceremony scheduled for October 6th.
That dedication day will include a visit from the new head of the United States Tennis Association as well as a free clinic for kids. An adult clinic — which will serve as a fund-raising event — is also planned.
“It has been a challenge as far as the logistics and transportation,” Anderson admitted. “We’ll play our matches at James Park and there are only 6 courts there, so we might have to wait to put on that last match for dual meets (usually 4 singles and 3 doubles matches).
“When it’s done it will be a wonderful facility and the seniors really want to play there before they graduate.”