Neal tennis hopes to keep improving with experience
By By BRUCE HIXON Sports Editor
There are some jobs where the best teaching method is on the job experience.
Ever since W.S. Neal High School started its tennis program three years ago, most of its players have had to learn the game during the season.
While many of the players have improved their individual skills, as a program W.S. Neal is still in the learning stage.
"We had to build this program from ground zero. A lot of these kids have never picked up a racket until they come out to play with this team. Last year our most experienced girl had been playing a total of six months prior to the start of the season. There is a little more experience with our boys, but not a lot," W.S. Neal coach Kraig Rittenhouse said.
Needless to say the inexperience has showed up on W.S. Neal's won/loss record. Last year the Lady Blue Eagles failed to win a match, while the Blue Eagles won only once.
Rittenhouse hopes another year's experience for the returning players will help improve those marks.
"We've got some pretty decent players at the top of both our boys and girls' lineups. A big problem we have for both teams is inexperience and depth at the lower part of the lineup," Rittenhouse said.
The most promising individual player for both W.S. Neal teams is probably on the girls side where sophomore Tawnya Henry is expected to anchor the number one position.
"Tawnya finished last season with a 5-3 record in singles play and all five wins came in succession. She is a hard hitter with steady strokes. Tawnya has improved her serve since last season. Another thing that helps her is she is a tough competitor on the court," Rittenhouse said.
While Henry is probably the clear favorite to play number one, the number two and three spots are not as secure. Those positions figure to be a battle between juniors Jullian Crutchfield and Kara Scurlock.
"Right now Jullian probably has a slight edge for number two. At this time she is a little more consistent than Kara," Rittenhouse said. "Jullian is probably our most improved player since last season. Inconsistency was a problem for her last season, but so far she is playing with a lot more consistency. Kara's strength is probably her ground strokes."
Junior Charity Thompson is penciled in for the number four spot at this time.
"Charity is probably our most steady player," Rittenhouse said.
W.S. Neal will turn to the middle school level for its projected number five player, eighth grader Maggie Crutchfield.
"Maggie held her own last year as a seventh grader and she usually played against juniors and seniors. She has pretty good ground strokes and has improved her serve," Rittenhouse said.
The sixth and final position is up for grabs. That will be a contest between freshmen Christina Beckwith, Jessica Madsen, Sarah Kent, Jessica Jackson and Tierra Andrews.
"Christina is probably the most advanced of those players, but she didn't play last year. This is the first time Jessica Madsen has ever played, but she has improved a lot in a very short time," Rittenhouse said.
While Henry has a firm grip on the Lady Blue Eagles top spot, the number one spot for the Blue Eagles is not as definite. In fact, the battle between junior Kris Andrews and senior Alphonso Gross could last all season.
"They could bounce back and forth all season. We won't have Kris available for all matches because he also plays golf. When he does play, Kris has the tools to be an awesome player. He has improved 100 percent from last season. He has the ability and the leadership. The question is can he be consistent," Rittenhouse said. "Alphonso has tremendous speed and his ground strokes are pretty good. Right now we're trying to improve his serve."
Jeremy Dantzler, a senior, is targeted for the number three spot.
"Like a lot of our players, he has improved 100 percent since last year. He has hit well in practice. The key is can he hit well during a match," Rittenhouse said.
Another senior, Brett Chancery, is slotted for number four at this time.
"Brett does a nice job of covering the court. He has good strokes and he never quits," Rittenhouse said.
W.S. Neal's inexperience starts to show up for the fifth and sixth positions. Senior James Kitchen has the early grip for the fifth position.
"This is James' first year with the team so he isn't an accomplished player yet," Rittenhouse said. "However, James is smart and he will compete."
Seniors Alan Wallace and Chris Johnson along with seventh grader Daniel Hiers will battle for the sixth and final spot.
"There isn't much experience among those players. For a seventh grader, Daniel has done a good job at the start of practice and might surprise," Rittenhouse said.
W.S. Neal High School
Feb. 24 Andalusia Away 3 p.m.
Mar. 2 T.R. Miller Away 3:30 p.m.
Mar. 4 Andalusia Home 3 p.m.
Mar. 15 T.R. Miller Home 3:30 p.m.
Mar. 29 Opp Home 4 p.m.
Mar. 31 Greenville Away 4 p.m.
Apr. 6 T.R. Miller (boys home/girls away) 3:30 p.m.
Apr. 8 Greenville Home 4 p.m.
Apr. 13 Opp Away 4 p.m.
Apr. 19 Girls Sectional at Dothan
Apr. 22 Boys Sectional at Daphne
* Home matches at Jefferson Davis Community College