By Brian Paglia
Coming off a breakthrough season, the Ola girls tennis team felt it was poised to take the next step. The Lady Mustangs had won a region championship. They advanced to the second round of the state tournament. They anticipated the majority of that team would return. Expectations would only grow.
That was until its No. 1 singles player and one of its strongest doubles players gave up the sport to work, and Ola's season was suddenly enveloped in uncertainty.
"We were worried initially," Ola coach Yaundalyn Ebron said. "With that first match (against Woodland), we were worried."
It lost the match to Woodland. It lost the next four, too, and all of Ebron's concerns were validated.
After a 3-2 loss to Griffin, Ebron and boys coach Anthony Partello brutally assessed the roster. They broke up doubles teams and formed new ones. They juggled positions in the singles lineup.
And the results changed.
Ola went on to win 10 of its final 11 regular season matches, finished runner-up at the Region 4-AAAA tournament and qualified for the state tournament again. The Lady Mustangs (10-6) will host Lee County on Wednesday at 3 p.m. in the first round after the boys team plays Hardaway in its first round match at 11 a.m.
And the struggles of early on feel like a distant memory.
"I think we're playing good," Senior Hayley Pearce said.
"We're determined. After region tournament, when we got runner-up, we were like, 'We're not going to do this.' We were determined to come back and at least try to get back to where we were last year."
Pearce was one of several players caught up in the lineup shuffle. She was part of the Lady Mustangs' No. 1 doubles team, but her consistency and power found a new and suitable place as the No. 2 singles player.
Ebron said junior Olivia Badie is the hardest hitter on the team, so she became the team's No. 1 singles player. Freshman Olivia Botts, who Ebron calls "a tennis addict" prone to play for hours at a time on weekends, solidified the No. 3 singles spot.
"I had to break up a couple of doubles teams and push some girls to be singles," Ebron said. "Had to rebuild other doubles teams so they could get a partnership and learn how to have that chemistry."
On the surface, Ola would appear by its record to be a typical team. But with just four years worth of history, it has players who are converted cheerleaders who took up the sport at the persuasion of their boyfriend (Pearce) and converted gymnasts who sustained career-ending injuries but wanted to remain active.
In contrast, the boys team has built its rise to dominance in the county through pure tennis players.
They haven't lost a match since losing 3-1 to No. 4-ranked Heritage on February 27. They haven't lost a set in six matches.
After they won a region championship and advanced to the quarterfinals of the state tournament last season, the Mustangs (16-2) knew it would return a veteran-laden lineup and expectations would rise accordingly.
"We're looking to go a lot farther," Partello said.
With four seniors in the lineup, Ola understands the urgency of the task before it.
"This is it. It's do or die," Cameron Winters said. "We really want to finish as far as we possibly can."
"This is it," Josh Brown said. "If we win state, that would be amazing."