Questions abound for city squads

Free State trying to replace top five players; LHS trying to fill void left by Elwell

Losing a lot of good tennis players from a year ago leaves Free State High coach Jon Renberger completely clueless about the upcoming season.

How good can unproven players be? Can the young ones act like veterans? Can the raw talent be polished in time for the Sunflower League meet in May?

And then there’s the one that burns Renberger: Who said this coaching gig was an easy one?

“We’re young, less experienced, and we certainly don’t have as much depth,” Renberger said. “The top five players off of last year’s ladder were all seniors.”

Of those five, three of them — Ben Cropp, Eyad Safadi and Matt Schwabauer — qualified for state and propelled the Firebirds to a third-place finish at league. They’re gone, though, and a new crop of seniors looks to round out the top rungs of the ladder.

But the No. 1 spot right now belongs to sophomore Keith Pipkin. He likely will be joined up top by senior co-captains Bryan Maygers and Jason Kroge, senior Mark Whittemore and junior Charles Guard in Free State’s top five.

“We have a few talented kids returning from last year that mostly played JV,” Renberger said. “What they’re capable of doing at the varsity level may be uncertain, but I’m very optimistic.”

The Firebirds open today at Shawnee Mission South. They’ll have about six weeks of preparation and matches before the Sunflower League meet May 11 at SM East.

“These seniors and juniors that played under that strong class the last few years, this is their shot to show what they can do,” Renberger said. “I’m under the belief that we’ll be a lot better than expected.”

City senior tennis players James Garito, left, of Lawrence High, and Bryan Maygers of Free State High hope to lead their squads this season.

Lawrence High

The Lions will enter the post-Scott Elwell era with similar uncertainty about the potential of their team.

Elwell, who went 28-5 and finished fifth at state last year, provided an almost sure point for the Lions in most duals and now is playing tennis at the University of Iowa.

With him gone, the top spot is up for grabs for the first time in a long time.

“This season is like walking into a dark room,” LHS coach Dick Wedel said. “I think we’re going to be counting on a lot of underclassmen this year.”

To show how dark the room is, Wedel can name any one of nine players as possible varsity contributors. Seniors James Ashcraft, James Garito and Isaac Severance could make an impact. So could juniors Rahul Gogineni, Tommy Johnson and Noah Welch. Even a couple of sophomores — notably Ryan Robinson and Justin Isbell — could find themselves near the top of the ladder.

The room will brighten up a bit this afternoon, when the Lions play in a six-team meet at Emporia. How successful LHS will be this season is anybody’s guess.

“We’re lacking experience,” Wedel said, “but I don’t know how it looks. I don’t know what anybody else has.”