Archive for Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Wood: Renberger kept faith in Firebirds

October 15, 2003

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Enjoy the crow, critics. It's brought to you by Jon Renberger.

Free State High's mild-mannered, well informed girls tennis coach didn't fear losing a tremendous class of standouts.

Perhaps he should've. But he didn't.

Three elite players graduated after being named state champions as seniors last year. Their skills moved on, but their shadow still lurked over the 2003 Free State team.

Emily Wang, perhaps the best girls tennis player this city ever has seen, was a two-time state champion who went 32-2 a year ago. Even at the state tournament, against the best of the best, she dominated, winning the state-championship match, 6-2, 6-0 -- way too easy.

She's gone, though, now playing at the University of Illinois.

Emily Loewen and Lacey Luina, two talents who defined the meaning of teamwork, went 31-2 and won the 6A doubles title last year. Like Wang, their 6-2, 6-1 win in the state-championship match was hardly a challenge. And a state final should always be a challenge.

But they're gone, too. Loewen is at Cornell, Luina at Emporia State.

It would've been easy for Renberger to mope, to kick the dirt, to reminisce about his best-ever team at Free State and call 2003 a rebuilding year. Nobody would've blamed him.

But you know what? He didn't.

Instead, he proudly proclaimed the Firebirds would again be competitive. Not to the tune of two state champions, but competitive nonetheless.

And he was right.

What came of it was a Free State squad that was even deeper. Just one doubles team -- seniors Ellie Ott and Brenna Spurgeon -- qualified for state, but the other doubles team of sisters Rachel and Andrea Koch was one set away from qualifying, and singles players Marisa Steinbach and Kristen Bushouse were each just one match away.

A few more bounces the Firebirds' way, and they easily could've had twice as many state qualifiers as a year ago.

"We wanted to put a team format together that gave each and every one of them a chance," Renberger said. "We didn't want to put all of our eggs in one basket."

Last year, Renberger was named the Kansas Coach's Assn. girls tennis coach of the year. He shrugged it off, saying he won because of the success of his gifted players.

To a degree, he was right. But this year, from a team standpoint, Renberger arguably did more with less. In 2003, he truly earned the honor that was bestowed upon him in 2002.

Before the season, the Firebirds lurked in the shadows of three great tennis players from the past year. Renberger, as mild-mannered and cool as ever, led them out of it.

Without question, Free State's season was a success.

Should've never doubted Jon Renberger when he said it would be.

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