Cards rebuilding after championship run

Last year was a special one for the Newton girls tennis team.

After three straight winless seasons, no one could have predicted a conference championship in 2011. But that’s what the Cardinals did.

Under new coach Erick Zehr, they went undefeated (7-0) in conference duels to win the regular season Little Hawkeye Conference crown before taking a close second at the conference tournament. On top of that, 2011 graduate Taylor Soule became the first Newton girl in modern history to qualify for the individual state tournament. The season became one of the best sports stories in Jasper County for the 2010-11 school year.

Through the first few weeks of practice this spring, Newton has had to face the harsh realization it isn’t the same as the 2011 version. Nine seniors from that team are gone, including seven varsity players. The core of the team — its top four singles players and top two doubles teams — were lost to graduation, meaning the current varsity features many new faces.

“We’ve tried to emphasize that this is a different team,” Zehr said.”We can’t sit here and compare ourselves to last year’s achievements. We have to be our own team. That being said, last year’s team was successful for a reason. They put in the time and the hard work. This year’s team can take those lessons and use those as building blocks for their own success.”

Perhaps bouyed by last year’s success, the Cardinals have a large roster for a second-straight season. Thirty-five players are on the team, including six freshmen and 14 sophomores.

“We lost 16 people and only returned 15 or 16, and our numbers really didn’t dip at all,” Zehr said. “We have a lot of people out for the first time, and a lot of them are sophomores and juniors. As a coach, I’m ecstatic to see that.”

Last year’s top four singles spots were vacated by graduates Soule, Caitlyn Hagarty, Isabelle Christopher and Erin Lewis, so it’s largely a new crop of girls taking over the varsity lineup. The backbone of this season’s squad will likely be juniors Katelyn Camp and Katelin Klyn, who will play No. 1 and 2 singles after playing 5 and 6 most of last year.

“It feels like we’re starting from scratch,” Klyn said. “It’s hard to lose that many players. Our leadership left, so this year all the juniors and upperrclassmen are going to have to step up and be as good of leaders as the seniors were last year, because they really helped us pull through.”

Camp and Klyn also move up to play No. 1 doubles after playing No. 3 a year ago, when they earned the nickname, ‘Katelyn squared’. Not only will their competition be much tougher this season, but they’ll also be depended upon for leadership to a bigger extent.

“It’s going to be a humungous step up for them,” Zehr said.”Everyone that they face will be very talented. They’re going to learn a lot more about strategy and how to play certain opponents. The game will be much bigger this time around. Last year they had four strong senior leaders and were able to sit back a litle more and ride the wave. they’ll need to be good role models and set the tone at practices and meets. I know they’re up to the task.”

“It’s fun working together still,” Camp added about her and Klyn. “We get to lead the team this year. People look up to us instead of us looking up to upperclassmen.”

Behind those two, it’s mostly underclassmen that make up the rest of the varsity lineup. Junior Krystal Mapes and sophomore Holly Vander Pol will start out at No. 3 and 4 singles and will be the No. 2 doubles team. After that, sophomores Caitlin Combs and Jennifer Ventling are at No. 5 and 6 singles and will be No. 3 doubles. Then it’s senior Shayla Hawkins-Cones and junior Kora Scotton at No. 7 and 8 singles and No. 4 doubles, and the varsity is rounded out by junior Katie Hinshaw and sophomore Felicia Fischer at No. 9 and 10 singles and No. 5 doubles.

“The people moving up, they really only have one or two years of experience,” Zehr said. “We’re very young, but that can be a good thing. They’re willing to learn. The girls that have come up on varsity have put in time over the summer and several of them play other sports. Their natural athletic ability is there, and now it’s about developing the finer parts of the sport.”

The Cardinals only had three home meets last year, but they’ll have five this spring, including their first two and three of their first four. They begin competition on Tuesday when they host non-conference foe Marshalltown at 4:15 p.m.