The first team in Free State High history to take the court could be the first to take state.
The Firebirds' girls tennis team, the first to officially compete for the school after it opened in 1997, has two returning state qualifiers and a girl who will play college tennis in the spring.
"This is my ninth year of coaching tennis -- four years in college and four years in high school -- and this is the most excited I've ever been for a season, both in terms of the quality of the kids and the talent of the team," said Jon Renberger, the Firebirds' third-year coach.
Free State begins its season today, competing in the Overland Park Aquinas Doubles Invitational.
For the opener, the Firebirds will send senior Kim Heck and sophomore Susie Epp at No. 1 doubles, seniors Sandi Biszantz and Molly Winter at No. 2 doubles, sophomore Katie Bushouse and senior Kylie Renberger at No. 3 doubles, and sophomores Jenna Sheldon-Shermon and Emily McWilliams at No. 4 doubles.
That roster doesn't even include perhaps the team's best player, junior Laura Gravino. The Lawrence High transfer, third in singles at the Class 6A state tournament last fall, likely will be the Firebirds' No. 1 singles player.
Heck also returns with state experience, having finished 11th last year.
"It makes everybody excited, first of all, to be a part of the team for two reasons," Renberger said of having two returning state qualifiers. "No. 1, obviously, they are very talented and proven players. But, I think more importantly, they're both extremely well-liked.
"They're highly skilled, talented players who are not arrogant about their abilities. Both of them have outstanding character."
Heck likely will be paired with Epp at No. 1 doubles during the season.
One of the other players who could contribute is Kylie Renberger, the coach's sister.
The younger Renberger was on the McPherson varsity squad as a sophomore. Although she wasn't eligible for varsity last year after transferring, she lettered with the junior varsity team.
During her senior season, Renberger will compete at the varsity level. Then, after graduating early, she'll play for Hutchinson CC in the spring.
Adding to the excitement is the fact that freshmen will be eligible to play on the high school team later in the season for the first time, which could prove to be a boost for the Firebirds.
Today's tournament comes five days after the official start of practice.
"It's been a fantastic first week of practice," Renberger said. "Experiencing the progress from one year to the next has been the most enjoyable thing. Two years ago, practicing at West Junior High with 14 girls who had virtually no competitive experience to having 28 -- many of which have played competitive tennis for years and years and having two of the best players in the state -- is a bit of a quantum leap for the program."
-- Robert Sinclair's phone message number is 832-7185. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.