The Highland High School girls tennis team is loaded with a large group, and the majority of them are experienced players.
“The numbers are the best they have been in about five years,” said Highland coach Matt Pellock, whose team opens the season Thursday with a 4 p.m. home match against Alton . “We are currently holding a roster of over 20 girls, and a lot of them are returning players. The experience of this team has continued to grow over the last three seasons, creating a team mix of new and veteran players.”
More than before in the past few seasons, Pellock said it feels like this team has the experience to compete for a conference title and the talent to reach a state qualification.
“There was some frustration after close losses at the end of last season that will definitely fuel our team this year,” he said.
Highland will need to fill a couple of spots previously held by 2015 graduates Melanie Wick and Sarah DeVries, but the Lady Bulldogs will have girls in their fourth year along with some of the younger talent that will compete for those spots.
“We will have four returning varsity players, and they are coming back after a very solid season a year ago,” Pellock said.
The top-four returners are seniors Stephanie Olivares and Liz Arend, as well as junior Elisabeth Meadows and sophomore Kirsten Plocher.
Olivares has played either at HHS’ No. 1 or 2 spots the last three years, and she will be a big part of the team once again in her senior season.
“It’s great to have a player coming back who has experience playing the top players,” Pellock said. “She has always shown great natural ability and quickness on the court. She will be a focal point of this team.”
Arend is another three-year starter for Highland that will be back for her fourth season. Like Olivares, Arend has also played a ton of matches, and the senior duo will be the team’s leaders this season.
“Liz (Arend) has improved every season with some nice success, especially last year,” Pellock said. “She has good power behind her shots, and it will be key for her to find consistency with the strong shot-making ability. Liz and Stephanie are the leaders of this group and looking forward to seeing them finish their tennis careers with great seasons.”
Pellock said he is looking for Olivares and Arend to have their best seasons in their last year, and there is a good chance that will be the case if they are competing hard each and every match, which he fully expects.
Meadows has shown great improvements in two years and Pellock said he his really excited to see her game grow even more this season.
“She should be poised for a nice season,” he said. “She has really taken a strong liking for the game and did very well a year ago. Her instincts at the net combined with her ability to find openings in the court are really what drove her success, especially in doubles. She has played consistently this off-season and worked on lots of her game.
Plocher was the Lady Bulldogs’ surprise freshman talent last year. She used her great athleticism and quick wit in catching on to the nuances of the game to help her win a ton of tennis matches in her first season.
“She too has good power in her swings, and a big move for her will be to incorporate spin and improved footwork into her game that will make her a very tough player,” Pellock said. “The more she is out there, the better her court awareness and knowledge of the game continues to show, and Kirsten (Plocher) will be a big part of our team once again.”
Pellock said he is excited to see the elevation in the games of Meadows and Plocher.
“They were playing great tennis before we finished last season, and with improvements in their skill since then, they can really do well this year,” he said.
One of the big components to the team’s success this season will be what comes from the open spots the team has in order to complete its top-six and top-eight spots.
“Getting quality play from those positions will give us the opportunity for more wins and ultimately our conference championship,” Pellock said.
Other returners are seniors Emily Gutzler and Madelynn Shively, who have both also played three seasons and have good match experience.
“They both have varsity experience and have been a big part of our tournament rosters, with a nice opportunity to be a fixture in the varsity this season,” Pellock said. “This experience should result in consistent and smart tennis from them. The team will also be relying on leadership from these two and I know they will respond well in that role.”
Highland still has a big group of other returning players in senior Veronica Sheahan, junior Anjuli Kampwerth and Kennidy Riedemann, as well as sophomores Mallory LaFrance, Arianna Kampwerth, Delaney Rigney and Haley Basler.
“They all represented our JV team a year ago and even had some tournament experience last season,” Pellock said.
The Lady Bulldogs should have a lot of competition throughout the program as there are a slew of good, young players who will make up the middle of the team: Karli Riedemann, Lillian Sheahan, Noah Veitel, Lauren Riggs, Hannah Wilson, Kate Camillo, Destany Morland and Maya Zobrist.
“These numbers in the JV will certainly provide a variety of competition for one another, and I am eager to see if they make any big jumps and possibly some surprises that can challenge for varsity,” Pellock said.