With just one senior among its top 10, last year’s Eau Claire Memorial girls tennis team was a little on the green side coming into the season.
Of course, that was relative to the high bar set by the Old Abes, who still won their 10th straight Big Rivers Conference title and eighth straight sectional title.
This fall, that inexperienced group is now a veteran bunch, with 14 letterwinners returning and another five fighting for a varsity spot. Even the one graduation loss — Emily Winzenz, one half of the top doubles pair — will be replaced by senior Madison Etzel, who missed last year with an injury after playing 3 doubles as a sophomore.
The early returns are promising. In the annual season-opening, 16-team invite at Brookfield, Memorial won three tight duals to advance all the way to the championship match before losing 4-3 to Homestead, the two-time defending state champs.
“We’ve never gotten that far, at least when I’ve been playing,” senior Isy Thapar said. “We’ve never actually been on the winning side of the draw the second day. It was a really great moral win for our team.
“That really boosted our confidence.”
Thapar and fellow senior Sierra Auleta are the defending Big Rivers champs at Nos. 2 and 1 singles. They’ll lead a talented singles group that added junior Haya Dodin, a transfer from Minot who finished second at the North Dakota state tournament last year. The three have been rotating among the top flights early in the year and all are capable of playing with top competition.
Auleta, a three-time individual state qualifier, won a pair of matches in Madison and was a second-team all-state pick.
“There’s a little pressure,” Auleta said about playing her final year, “but we’re just trying to enjoy our last season and make it a fun time and a competitive season.”
Senior Jordan Pauley and sophomore Natalie Harvey, who held down the Nos. 3 and 4 spots last year, also return.
Coach Jim Litscher, now in his 29th year, thinks the Abes have a good chance to improve on last year’s postseason run. Memorial lost a 4-3 team state quarterfinal to eventual state runner-up Neenah.
“It kind of depends on how our doubles develops,” Litscher said. “We’re probably a little deeper in singles.”
Etzel joins Mary Obias at the top doubles spot. Obias and Winzenz went to individual state a year ago. Also back are last year’s No. 2 doubles team of senior Shilpa Maddikunta and junior Julia Nick.
Juniors Lauren Carmody, Cameron Carmody, Abby Jochimsen, Lexi Patrow and Katie Becker and sophomore Sophie Konzen all saw extensive varsity time last year as well.