Last year, out of the four local singles players and the four doubles teams that qualified for the Class 1A boys tennis state tournament, six of the 12 players were seniors.
So, that leaves five seniors and one junior from Carbondale, Mount Vernon, Marion and Herrin back to make another run for the elusive spot on the podium at the state tournament at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights.
Carbondale (18-9) is coming off its 12th sectional title and its third in the last four seasons. Coach Mike Butler lost three seniors off that club.
“It’s been a fun ride for my 20 years as coach this year,” Butler said. “We’ve had many great players since our first sectional title in 2003, which was the senior year of Stephen Yau.
"However, it’s a little different story now. We’re not as talented on the top as we have been over the last decade, but we’re very solid down to nine. The God-given ability is not there, but I like their heart and I like their hustle. We’re not going to shock anybody up top, but we’re going to gain points throughout the match and the sectional at the lower levels. We’re not rebuilding or reloading either, but I don’t know what to classify it yet. So we’re going to keep it steady as she goes and try to be as solid as we can.”
Butler said Belleville Althoff and Mount Vernon are steps above Carbondale, Marion and Centralia when it comes to returners.
“If we find the ability to be solid, solid can be scary in my opinion,” Butler said. “I told the kids if they are consistent we won’t shock the other teams at the end of the season because they will expect them to perform well.”
Gone are Jack Butler from Carbondale and Felipe Caimi from Centralia in singles, along with Hayden Holloway and Austin Williamson from Herrin, Phen Grant from Carbondale and Derek Estes from Fairfield in doubles.
“Tyler Sherrill also graduated and he didn’t make it to state because he was in singles, but had made state the previous two seasons in doubles,” Butler said.
Butler won his first match in the championship bracket before being dropped into consolation bracket by the eventual fifth-place finisher, where he advanced to the fourth round. Caimi was knocked out in the consolation first round.
In doubles, Holloway teamed with Jake Baumguart and was eliminated in the consolation second round and Williamson teamed with Mitchell Cagle and was ousted in the consolation first round. Estes teamed with Jacob Britt and was also eliminated in the consolation second round.
“Herrin graduated everyone but Baumguart and Cagle,” Butler said. “Benton lost their best player when he moved to Arizona to be with his dad and work on his game there. He would have been a nice player in Southern Illinois in a year or two.”
In singles, Daniel Song from Mount Vernon is back. The senior advanced to the fifth round of the consolation bracket, leaving one round shy of the quarterfinals to earn him second-team all-state honors.
“Right now there are two very exceptional singles players in Southern Illinois in Song and senior Luke Motsinger from Marion, who are the cream of the crop coming back,” Butler said. “Mount Vernon also has Drew Piercy, Max Zinzilieta and Quan Nguyen back. Mount Vernon is easily the preseason favorite.”
Motsinger also won his first match before being dropped into the consolation bracket, where he was eliminated in the second round.
“I won’t sugarcoat it — this year is going to be a little tough,” said Marion coach Carrie Watson. “With Luke heading up things, we’ll be OK. Beyond him, we have sophomore Alex Gatt and junior Caleb Flesch back and they have worked hard in the off-season. We also have senior Jarrett Baker back after taking a year off. He’s very athletic.”
Watson lost four seniors and only returns Motsinger from her top six singles players.
“I was so senior heavy last year that a lot of these kids didn’t get a chance to play a lot of varsity matches and we’ve seen a lot of improvement from Caleb,” Watson said. “We’re going to be young and inexperienced. Even the older kids are inexperienced because they haven’t had a lot of varsity playing time. So it’s going to be a building year.”
With their partners having graduated, Herrin seniors Baumguart and Cagle could team up for their last season.
“Baumguart and Cagle are going to be a very tough doubles team not only locally, but at the state level, too,” Butler said. “Those two are tremendous athletes and I’m really jealous of how good they can be.”
Britt was a sophomore last year and had the fortune of teaming with one of the best doubles players in the region in Estes.
Carbondale junior Will Bruns teamed with Grant and the duo was eliminated in the consolation first round.
“Bruns, who is a two-time state qualifier in doubles, will be one of my three captains,” Butler said. “At this point Bruns is the favorite to take over at No. 1. Then I got a competition with four other kids to push him and two more who could challenge for that No. 1 position.”
The four are senior Robert Trinh, who played No. 4 singles last year, sophomore Kabeer Ahuja, sophomore Kurt Robinson and senior Chanceler Brown. In the mix are senior Scott Golz and junior Sam Baker with juniors Jake Brown and Jackson Beaupre battling for a spot in the top eight.
“Trinh has taken his game to another level and has worked harder than anybody and I’m expecting great things out of him,” Butler said. “Ahuja’s brother was my No. 1 when he played a decade ago. He has the game to be No. 1, but just doesn’t have the mental toughness yet. Robinson played eight last year and he has really blossomed physically this year. He has the mental game, but just has to develop his tennis game. Brown played six last year and I love his tennis game and heart.”