EDWARDSVILLE — On the walls in the office of Edwardsville tennis coach David Lipe hang team pictures of nearly every Tigers girls and boys squad in the past 20 years.
There are also copies of all-state certificates earned by former players and tournament title plaques sprinkled among the overcrowded walls and shelves.
The dean of tennis coaches in the Southwestern Conference, Lipe is the mastermind behind one of the top tennis programs outside of the Chicago suburbs.
Since 2003, the Tigers have been in the top 10 at the state tennis tournament four times. Fourth in the 2007 state finals, Edwardsville has placed ninth and sixth the last two years.
But armed with four seniors in Zach Bryant, Logan Ware, Jack Desse and Brandon Harris, along with a top freshman in Erik Weiler, the 2014 Tigers head into the postseason with a realistic chance of breaking into the top three at the IHSA State Tennis Tournament in three weeks.
"Would we like to finish higher than fourth? Sure. First of all, Hinsdale Central and Lake Forest are the frontrunners and after that there is a handful of six to eight teams which could be in the mix," Lipe said. "Are we one of those teams? Yes. But we are underdogs. I like being the underdog.
"We're not focusing on what place we're going to finish. We just want to go up and play to the best of our ability.''
With a win over Belleville East two weeks ago, the Edwardsville boys tennis team clinched at least a share of a 13th straight SWC championship.
The Tigers have a win over perennial state title contender Downers Grove South and 10 days ago placed fifth in the elite Pitchford Tournament in Arlington Heights. The finish was the highest ever for a team from southern Illinois. Edwardsville placed seventh there in 2013.
"A lot of great things came out of the Pitchford Tournament. Maybe the greatest was on the way home and I could see the math going on in the boys' heads. They know they are a solid team and that they are right there and that they don't have to back down to anybody in the state,'' Lipe said. "But we can't worry about where we finish in each tournament.
"Our goal needs to be to keep getting a little bit better every day. If we do that things will take care of themselves.''
Much of the Tigers success over the past three years stems from the four current seniors. Harris and Desse have been varsity players and among the best players in Southern Illinois since their freshmen seasons, while Ware and Bryant have played major roles since their sophomore seasons.
"Two years ago, we set specific goals for those kids in terms of development. These four kids have had a vision for themselves for the past two years and some of them even longer,'' Lipe said. "What helped them more then anything was that they were able to get into the lineup early in their careers."
Three of the four seniors will be playing college tennis. Harris has signed with Saint Louis University, while Desse will play at SIU-Edwardsville. Ware has signed with McKendree University.
Junior Jonathan Koons has made giant strides since last year, jumping from the No. 7 spot in singles to the No. 5 position. Koons and Bryant reached the semifinals of the No. 2 doubles flight at Pitchford.
Desse and Ware placed fifth in the No. 1 doubles flight.
Weiler is the top freshman in the region. A highly touted junior player, Weiler is a very good No. 6 singles player.
"Erik has a lot of skills and a lot of hours on the court under his belt," Lipe said. "But I think he has benefited from coming into a program where he was not the No. 1 player. He didn't have to deal with the pressure of being the top player.
"Also when you are not the No. 1 player you have to learn and work on getting better every day. Erik is doing that."
Juniors Joe Mezo and Kyle Carlson round out the top eight players from Edwardsville.
The 2014 season has also been a learning experience for the Tigers.
Competing in the DecoTurf High School Team Championship in Louisville, Ky., last month, Edwardsville finished 1-2. Edwardsville lost to a Spartanburg, S.C., team that featured three freshmen, an eighth-grade and a seventh-grade player in its top six players.
"It was a great experience for us to go down there and get stomped. It showed us that we can play with the best teams in the nation, but that we've got a lot of work to do," Lipe said.
That work continues this weekend at the SWC Tournament. Doubles will be hosted at Granite City High School beginning at 1 p.m. Friday. The singles competition will be at Edwardsville High on at 8:30 a.m. Saturday.
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at 239-2661 or firstname.lastname@example.org