Edenton expected to rebuild and stay in the mix to defend back-to-back Northeastern Coastal Conference boys tennis titles this spring.
For other area schools, expectations became finding materials to build anything.
Three NCC members — Northeastern, Pasquotank and Bertie — couldn’t. They were unable to drum up enough players to fill out a six-player singles lineup and are not playing.
Even Currituck found itself a few players short days before its opener, when last-minute recruitment gave the Knights eight on their roster.
“For me it was about trying to recruit more,” said No. 1 Currituck singles player Jonathan Jackson, one of just two starters back. “I really wanted a team, so that was my foremost goal, and I’m glad we have one.”
In a league with just Edenton, Currituck, First Flight and Hertford, the squads have scrambled to fill up a schedule with lots of open spaces.
The Aces, who lost three starters from last year, have had little trouble beating their remaining NCC foes, and that has turned their practice sessions into tougher competition than regular-season matches.
“Northeastern usually has a lot of people, and Pasquotank usually has a team, so it’s pretty surprising,” No. 2 Edenton singles player Stephen Chesson said. “You’re just kind of waiting to play until regionals and practice and hope to get better before then.”
“I’ve been challenging Stephen a lot, too, at practice,” said No. 1 Aces singles player Austin Wilder, who was No. 6 last year. “He’s been tough.
“When you play people that aren’t as good, it lessens your game, too. So it’s tough on a mental level when you mess up.”
The Aces have had some luck finding opponents, but it’s been about quantity more than anything else, getting games against 1A schools Riverside, Cape Hatteras and Gates.
But the community has also found a way to keep the team sharp, setting up an alumni team of former Aces and adult players to challenge the current squad.
Some of this impromptu action should also add to the competition Edenton would need to carry into individual regionals and team state playoffs.
“What we do in practice is those guys constantly play with each other to keep up as best as they can,” first-year Aces coach Nick Castiglione said. “It’ll be a fun exhibition match, because some of the pros in Edenton will come out and give the guys a run for their money and make them work on the court hopefully.
“When you lose teams from the conference, our top guys really take a hit from not seeing a certain level until regionals.”
It also shortens the NCC tournament, and could lessen the number of individual regional bids at the 2A level with three of the conference’s five 2A schools not competing.
Currituck coach Vic Ramsey added that since the league’s two 3A schools, the Knights and Hertford, play for one singles player and doubles team to advance, the same could follow for the remaining two NCC 2As.
“This is where it could really hurt,” Ramsey said. “If they only get one spot, then you probably will see Eben Wells from First Flight (returning NCC Player of the Year) in singles and a doubles team with just two of these Edenton kids will get a chance to go to regionals.
“It would be a real shame for the Edenton kids, because there’s three or four of them who are good enough to compete at regionals.”
Although Northeastern, Pasquotank and Bertie are usually not in the mix for the conference title — that’s been reserved in recent years for Edenton and First Flight — the lack of a middle of the pack could also hurt fielding teams in the near future.
In Currituck, Ramsey has had plenty of participation for girls tennis in the fall, but efforts in the boys game haven’t been as fruitful.
The current downward trend could hit the Knights just as hard as Northeastern, Pasquotank and Bertie’s struggles to return with teams.
“My biggest concern is not this year, it’s the next couple of years,” Ramsey said. “In our Rec program, we’re working with a half a dozen boys from third to sixth grade, and they’re coming along. But I have one freshman, no sophomores, three juniors, and I’ll lose four seniors off this team. The next two years we’re really looking for players.
“The biggest thing is building it, and we have it coming in Currituck. It’s building a program where kids learn the game as children, and then they get to the high school team, and they come out because they’ve been looking forward to it for four to five years.
“I’ve got some great guys, and I’m having a lot of fun coaching and teaching them, but with the exception of just a couple of them, we’re beginners. It’s hard to be competitive as beginners.”
Jackson has also seen a slide coming.
“It’s bad and a struggle for tennis, and I don’t see why,” Jackson said. “It’s hurting everywhere, so we hope we get some good freshmen who will come in and play. Honestly I think it’s been going downhill for the last two years. Last year was my first year, and we only had two returning, so it’s going like that.”