Young Bulldogs ready to take the court

Trey Hull returns a shot during high school tennis practice at Jon Kneen Courts in Ottumwa.

OTTUMWA – There may not have been a high school tennis season last spring.

That didn't stop the Ottumwa High School boys tennis players from getting out on the court plenty of times over the past year. From the Dan Staggs Classic to a variety of tennis tournaments inside and outside the state, the Bulldog tennis players have worked to keep their skills sharp heading into the 2021 season.

Mark Hanson, entering his fourth year as head coach of the Ottumwa boys tennis program, has seen the work put in by many of the players that will be key participants on the team this season. When they haven't been participating in official practices or tournaments, many players could be found getting some work done even as spring sports last season were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"These guys came out and played a lot during the spring, even during the COVID time," Hanson said. "During the summer, these guys were out here every day. The big advantage for us is about 10 of the guys played in those summer tournaments. That makes you that much tougher.

"I think we're a little battle-tested. When we get into the really tough matches against some of the tougher teams in the state, I think we'll be a lot more competitive."

That experience outside of the regular high school tennis season will certainly help the Bulldogs, who will introduce several new faces to the starting line-up. With the 2020 season being canceled, almost none of the Ottumwa players that will start in the season's first match at Des Moines East on Thursday have played in a high school varsity tennis match.

That will certainly be true of freshman Toby Schmidt, the player that will step into the position of the top singles' position.

"I've been coaching high school tennis since 1988. This is the first season I've had a freshman going into the season playing No. 1 on any of my teams," Hanson said. "Toby really emerged last summer as a quality tournament player. He had some good wins and really showed well in those tournaments. He's continued to play very well this spring.

"I think he'll be very competitive. The one thing he's got going against him is that he is a freshman and he'll be playing the top player on everyone else's team. Some of those guys are juniors and seniors that have been playing since they were 7 or 8-years-old. Toby basically started when he was in seventh grade. He's got some ground to make up, but he's doing it quickly. I'm really excited about his chances."

Schmidt talked about stepping right in to the role of being Ottumwa's top singles player in his very first season of high school tennis. It will, according to Schmidt, take some getting used to.

"I'm pretty nervous going into it, but I'm more excited about the opportunity," Schmidt said. "It's going to be an exciting opportunity to grow and get better."

Schmidt is one of many players that will making their varsity debuts on Thursday. Several players, however, have become familiar faces around the tennis courts in Ottumwa continuing to work on hard at improving their position heading into the 2021 campaign.

"The first day I met with the team for practice this season, I told the guys I've got a team that looks so much different than what I thought it was going to look like four years ago," Hanson said. "I've got guys that have emerged from the very depths of our roster and are now in the top six. Guys like Trey Hull and Clayton Ferguson were near the bottom of the ladder as freshmen. They're currently No. 3 and No. 4 (singles). Zarren Kirubakaran just really started playing seriously over the past couple summers and he's really risen up in our line-up.

"We've got probably 10 guys that capable of playing in our top six. They're going to be competing against each other a lot. They really like to compete, which I love. You won't ever see them quit during a long match. Hopefully, if we get in long matches, we're going to have an advantage. We're really focusing on fundamental stuff this spring. If we can do the basic things and the small things, we're hoping that will take care of a lot of our issues. I'm very excited about the progress they've made."

— Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.

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