Jeremy Mayo/River News
In this Aug. 11, 2018 file photo, Rhinelander’s Alex Oestreich plays a point during a girls’ tennis scrimmage against Wausau West at the Rhinelander High School tennis courts. Oestreich will switch from No. 1 singles to No. 1 doubles this year and team up with fellow senior Jackie Wells as the Hodags look to win their ninth GNC title in 10 years.
Jeremy Mayo/River News
In this Sept. 22, 2018 file photo, Rhinelander’s Annika Johnson hits a return during the Great Northern Conference girls’ tennis tournament at Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua. After going 17-12 and qualifying for sectionals at No. 1 doubles with teammate Haley Seefeldt last season, Johnson will switch to No. 1 singles this year.
Date Opponent Time
8/17 WAUSAU WEST (scrimmage) 9 a.m.
8/19 Wausau West Invite 9 a.m.
8/22 at Marshfield Columbus* 4:30 p.m
8/23 HODAG INVITE* 9 a.m.
8/26 Wisconsin Rapids Quad 9 a.m.
8/27 MEDFORD* 4:30 p.m.
8/29 at Phillips* 4:30 p.m.
8/30 Wausau West Invite 9 a.m.
8/31 Wausau West Invite 9 a.m.
9/5 WAUSAU NEWMAN* 4:30 p.m.
9/7 Green Bay Southwest Invite 9 a.m.
9/10 STEVENS POINT 3:30 p.m.
9/12 ANTIGO* 4:30 p.m.
9/18 at Pacelli* 4:30 p.m.
9/19 LAKELAND* 4:30 p.m.
9/28 GNC MEET at RHS* 9 a.m.
10/7 WIAA Subsectionals TBA
HOME MEETS IN CAPS
8/17/2019 7:30:00 AM Eager to repeat: Hodag squad with five new starters looks to start another GNC championship streak
In terms of dramatics, it will be hard to top what the Rhinelander High School girls' tennis team accomplished last year.
Down to a tiebreaker in the final match of the Great Northern Conference tournament, Emma Roberts staved off Antigo's Ellie Kelly to win the second singles flight and give the Hodags their eighth conference championship in nine years.
Two years ago Antigo halted Rhinelander's run of seven straight conference titles.
For the Hodags to successfully defend their title this year they are going to have to replace half of the starters from last year's conference championship squad.
"Right now, I'm pretty positive," coach Bob Heideman said Thursday at practice. "We did the process of filling the spots. We did some mini challenges."
Even the returning players will not be in the same positions they were last year. It starts right at the top where senior Alex Oestreich, who went 13-17 at No. 1 singles, will make the switch to doubles this year and team up with fellow senior Jackie Wells, who was part of a rotation at No. 3 doubles with Lisa White, and since graduated Savannah Chartier that went 25-4 together.
Heideman said the seeds of moving Oestreich to doubles and pairing her with Wells were sown shortly after last season ended.
"Alex went through the wars at No. 1 (singles) last year and did it without complaining," Heideman said. "It's tough. You're playing very strong girls and tennis matches can get very long when that's the case. I said to them very early, almost at the end of last year, that if they would commit to putting in a lot of hours together as a doubles team, that I would consider doing that. They really liked that idea, responded, put in a lot of hours."
Taking Oestreich's place at No. 1 singles will be sophomore Annika Johnson in what is essentially a position swap for the two. Johnson went 17-14 with Haley Seefeldt at No. 1 doubles last year and qualified for sectionals.
"Annika put in a lot of hours in terms of if I was moving Alex, Annika was going to flip (to singles)," Heideman said.
Back on the singles side are senior Kenedy Van Zile (26-4) and freshman Kaylee Pontell (27-3), who were conference champions last year at Nos. 3 and 4 singles. They will both move up one spot in the lineup as the Hodags fill the hole at No. 2 left by Roberts' graduation.
Heideman said Johnson, Van Zile and Pontell are not far apart in terms of skill level, but the three players and coach agreed upon the order at Nos. 1, 2 and 3 instead of playing challenge matches to determine the lineup.
"We actually had a little mini-meeting and that's how they preferred it," Heideman said. "Kenedy, being a captain, kind of took the lead and said, 'This is how it should be.'"
With the returning players moving up, that leaves holes at the back end of the lineup for Heideman to fill. The good news for Heideman is the players filling those voids generally have a long tenure with the program and played high-end JV matches last season, and made a couple of spot varsity starts.
White, a senior, will team up with junior Kathryn Borski at No. 2 doubles while seniors Jaiden Thiel and Izzy Haverkampf take the spot at No. 3 doubles. Those four players went a combined 86-4 in JV/varsity reserve matches last season.
Junior Kat Metropulos has won the starting spot at No. 4 singles.
Heideman said there's a sense of security adding three seniors to the starting lineup. He also noted that White, Thiel and Haverkampf put in solid summers in training.
"I sense a camaraderie there. It's also an implied leadership," he said. "They're stepping into varsity and they're seniors. I think that's bumping the team in the right direction."
The Great Northern Conference has been a two-way battle between Rhinelander and Antigo each of the last two years. Even when Rhinelander was dominating the GNC, Antigo was its nearest rival. The two have finished first and second in the conference five of the last six years. Antigo is in a similar boat as Rhinelander, replacing four of its 10 starters from last year's runner-up squad - but the losses include No. 1 singles player Mya Gaedtke and reigning GNC doubles players of the year Taylor Arrowood and Abby Robrecht.
The two will likely have company at the top this year. Wausau Newman, which played spoiler to Antigo's conference title bid last year by upsetting the Robins in dual meet play, returns nine of its 10 starters from last year's squad, including reigning WIAA Division 2 singles state champion Mia Larrian.
"I think you've got to count Newman in, if no other reason than they have the defending state champ," Heideman said. "That's one that's going to be in the win box (for them). Then they have her sister (Becky) who was a freshman and she was inconsistent last year. If she comes back and has put in a tremendous amount of time and they can X in two (wins), it's hard winning four out of the remaining (five flights) to win the match."
Rhinelander will host this year's GNC girls' tennis tournament Sept. 28 and Heideman said the goal for his squad remains the same.
"We're going to be on these courts in the conference tournament winning the conference championship," he said. "I think again, much like last year, is Annika going to be the strongest player in the league? Probably not, with Mia (Larrian back for Newman). I think, top to bottom, we'll match up with pretty much anybody."
The Hodags will scrimmage against Wausau West this morning before traveling to Wausau for an invite on Monday. Rhinelander will begins its GNC title defense Thursday at Marshfield Columbus before returning home for a non-conference triangular with Merrill and Ironwood, Mich. next Friday.
A hot start was key for the Hodags last season. They won their first 14 dual meets and finished 22-4 overall.
Heideman said the goal is to hit the ground running again this season.
"I'm a big believer in marking out your stake early and defending, as opposed to the opposite," he said.
Other key dates on the schedule for the Hodag netters will be home dual meets against Wausau Newman and Antigo Sept. 5 and 12.
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