The Defiance six-county area will be strongly represented this week in girls tennis as multiple players take to the court for Division II district play with a chance to advance to state.
Napoleon coach Mike Burke will be taking a pair of doubles teams to districts this season as the senior duo of Liz Yarnell and Alayna Schlade, as well as juniors Rachel Niermann and Addie Small both qualified for district play. Yarnell and Schlade are returning from a trip to districts last season.
"Our top team, Yarnell and Schlade, finished second at the sectional tournament and really battled a very fine and highly-touted returning state qualifying team from Ottawa Hills in the finals before falling 6-2, 7-5," pointed out Burke. A lineup change was made for tournament play as Burke paired Schlade, who had played first singles in the regular season and Yarnell, second singles this year, together at doubles.
"Alayna played first singles for the first time in her career this year and struggled with that level of competition, but she loves doubles and has raised her level of play since the sectional started," explained Burke. "When they play well they are good. They need to maintain their composure, stay positive with each other, play well as a team, and be sure to not give too many points away through errors and double faults."
The younger duo of Small and Niermann are rolling into districts after an extremely successful regular season and multiple years of team experience. They did not lose a conference match this regular season.
"Addie and Rachel have been very impressive all year," lauded Burke. "This is their third year together as a doubles team, so they play doubles very well. They lost one regular-season match and had the opportunity to avenge that loss in the consolation finals at sectionals and did, beating a second Ottawa Hills team 6-3, 7-5. They were our only league champions, and they also led the team in victories this season."
With stiff competition, Burke knows it will be an uphill battle, but that his girls are ready to undertake the challenge of moving forward.
"Qualifying for state will be tough for either team, and the draw is extremely important as only three teams make it to state. This week we are really stressing fundamentals, particularly serving and service return. It gets a little tougher to poach and be aggressive at the district level since players hit the ball a little harder and serves and returns are a little firmer. We hope to stay aggressive. It has been a long and strenuous season, but we hope to make it last a week longer."
Bryan senior Erin McDonagh entered this season as a two-time district qualifier, but a district win has eluded her both trips. With a successful season and over 20 wins up to this point, she now hopes to pick up that first district victory and move forward.
"I think getting over 20 wins on the season is a big deal for Erin," said Bryan coach Mitchell Owens. "She's realistic about her expectations at districts as there are three returning state qualifiers coming back, so I think for her she is pleased that she was sectional runner-up and made it back to districts. She has never made it past the first round of districts, so I think she would like to win that first round match this year."
This may be the year for McDonagh, who has improved different aspects her game for her senior season.
"Erin is more patient this year," noted Owens. "She is content to wait for the point to come to her and then capitalize on the opportunities as they present themselves. Additionally, Erin's mental toughness is far better this year than last year. Her mental toughness allows her to play through 'rough spots' during the match until she can get her game going again. That is probably the biggest difference in her game this year."
As an experienced senior, Owens doesn't think that McDonagh will be rattled taking the court.
"She won't be distracted by the festivities," explained Owens. "She's likely played all the top players at the event at least once in her career. There will be no surprises for her. Erin's to the point where she can coach herself on the court, which is great. At times I remind her of certain tendencies she has when she gets in a rut, but overall, she's her own coach out there."
Wauseon will also represent the area as Samantha Carr advanced from the Archbold Sectional into district play.
District action gets under way at the University of Findlay on Wednesday and will wrap up on Saturday.