Derek Than is back as the No. 1 singles player for St. John s. Than, a senior, won the City League championship last season and qualifi ed for the state tournament.
Little has changed from a manpower standpoint with the two-time Division I state runner-up St. John s Jesuit tennis team.
Six of seven regulars return to the court for Titans coach Jim Davis.
Yet, there are subtle differences with the Titans from the two previous seasons.
They re a year older and a year more experienced.
Because they did so well last year, now they know they re very capable of winning a state championship, Davis said.
Tennis teams compete in a team tournament sponsored by the Ohio Tennis Coaches Association. Individuals compete in the Ohio High School Athletic Association state tournament in singles and doubles.
The Titans are a team with lofty ambitions. They entered the season with plenty of optimism and determination to make this year even better.
The idea of winning a state team championship stands as the primary source of motivation.
We re very focused, maybe even more than last year because we were so close to winning a championship last year, said Tyler Sbrocchi, a senior, who has moved up from No. 3 singles last year to No. 2 singles this year.
The Titans talent and determination have already been put to the test this season when they played in a team invitational hosted by Lakewood St. Edward. Traditional powers St. Francis de Sales and defending state champion Cincinnati St. Xavier were among the seven-team field.
The Titans, who placed second in the tournament the past two seasons, responded to the challenge and walked away as champions.
I really think what happened [in Cleveland] was a huge boost of confidence for them, Davis said. We now know we have a chance and that s all you ask when you throw the balls out there on the court.
The Titans approached the tournament almost like it was a state tournament. From a motivational standpoint they played as if their entire season was riding on the outcome.
We ve never won that tournament and we wanted to go there and prove we want to win a state championship, said Eric North, a junior, who played No. 2 doubles last season with fellow junior Steve Smith.
The Titans prevailed with singles players Derek Than and Sbrocchi winning the No. 1 and No. 2 singles titles, respectively. North and Smith claimed first place for No. 2 doubles, while Jacob Kuhn placed second at No. 3 singles and Brian Meyer and Rollin Urrutia finished third among the No. 1 doubles teams.
Sbrocchi believes the Titans, who had come close to winning the tournament in the past, were due to finally make it happen.
We ve gone to that tournament the four years I ve been here, Sbrocchi said. We always wanted to get first in that tournament, so it was great to finally do that.
In a sport traditionally seen as an individual game, the Titans have stressed the importance of teamwork.
North, who has split part of the season playing doubles with Smith and also playing in the No. 3 singles spot, believes they ve become a better all-around team because they ve become a more close-knit group. The Titans put more time into working out together during last off-season than in previous years.
We ve become a lot more like a team, North said. We cheer for each other at matches and that helps. Everyday [during the off-season] I was calling someone to go out and hit with.
Rollin Urrutia teamed up with Brian Meyer to win the City League and district doubles titles, then finished third in the Division I state tournament.
PAUL VERNON / AP Enlarge
Past Titans teams didn t shy away from hard work. They also trained year-round during Davis first two seasons in charge. They put time on the court and spent hours in the gym lifting weights.
This year s team has made it easy for Davis to consider it his hardest working team to date.
The kids are the ones who set the bar high, Davis said. They want to do well. They want to be at states every year and obviously as coaches that makes us happy.
Than, who is one of four Titans seniors, leads the group of singles players. A state qualifier a year ago in his first season playing tennis at St. John s, Than has been a key player during the team s 7-0 start in matches.
Derek polished up what he needed to work on during the off-season, Davis said. I really think all of our singles players will do well. They ve put the time in during the offseason.
Expectations are also high for Meyer and Urrutia after placing third at state in doubles as juniors last spring.
Brian Meyer teamed up with Rollin Urrutia to win the City League and district doubles titles, then finished third in the Division I state tournament.
PAUL VERNON / AP Enlarge
It s like [Ohio State basketball players] Michael Conley and Greg Oden, they know each other s moves because they ve played with each other for so long, said Davis of the Titans top doubles team.
The Titans, who are the defending City League champions, took this week off for spring break.
However, no one, especially their head coach, expects the layoff to affect the Titans early season momentum when they resume play following the break.
The guys worked very hard in the off-season working out and lifting weights, Davis said. We ve got a pretty good nucleus of players and the experience will help us a lot.
They ve got the experience and know what to do. They re a group of young men who are very focused about what they want to do.