In this Sept. 28, 2019 file photo, the Rhinelander High School girls’ tennis team displays the Great Northern Conference championship trophy following the GNC meet at the RHS tennis courts. Despite replacing five starters from last year’s squad, the Hodags won their ninth conference title in 10 years. (Jeremy Mayo/River News)
11/5/2019 7:31:00 AM Team review: RHS girls' tennis Hodag netters reload to win 9th GNC title in 10 years
Rhinelander High School girls' tennis coach Bob Heideman took a moment last month during the team's banquet to highlight some of the achievements of this year's Hodag squad.
In addition to becoming Rhinelander's ninth Great Northern Conference championship team in the last 10 years, the Hodags went 18-7 on the year and a perfect 7-0 in the GNC. Rhinelander won those matches on roughly a 5-2 clip with 148 wins and 55 losses overall on the season.
Heideman was quick to point out that the success was never preordained, especially considering how many holes the team had to fill from last year's squad.
"The narrative was that this wasn't written in stone, replacing five good players from last year's team. It was not guaranteed that this would happen," he said.
A big part of the reason for this year's success was this year's senior class, which made up five of the team's 10 starting varsity positions. Of those five, only two had previous varsity playing experience. Coincidentally, all five seniors ended up playing doubles, which ended up being a solid foundation for the team.
Heideman pointed that the Hodags have gone 74-21 overall, 41-3 in the GNC, thanks in large part to the contributions of this year's seniors.
"That all came together to have a great year," he said. "I thank everyone they were a part of it, all the effort that they gave to make that happen."
Here are five storylines from the recently completed season.
Last year the battle between Rhinelander and Antigo for the Great Northern Conference title was decided by a tiebreaker in the last match of the conference tournament.
With both teams losing roughly the same number of players, the conference race figured to be a two-way race between the teams yet again. That proved to be true, however, the swing match was a 5-2 victory for the Hodags when they hosted Antigo Sept. 13. Additionally, Antigo fared worse in head-to-head matchups with Medford and Wausau Newman than Rhinelander did. That resulted in a fairly comfortable 10-point lead for Rhinelander entering the conference tournament.
Unlike last year, when Rhinelander won the conference title despite being outscored by Antigo in the GNC meet, the Hodags pulled away by advancing to the finals in six of the seven flights. When Antigo slipped up at Nos. 1 and 2 doubles -failing to advance out of the first round at No. 1 doubles and dropping a semifinal match at No. 2 doubles - the Robins' chance for a conference title upset came to an end.
Rhinelander won the day with consistency throughout the lineup, as the only school to place in the top three in all seven flights. Kenedy Van Zile, Kaylee Pontell and Kat Metropulos took home conference titles at Nos. 2, 3 and 4 singles. Rhinelander was second with all three of its doubles teams and added a third-place finish at No. 1 singles by sophomore Annika Johnson.
The end result was a 33-25 victory over Antigo on the day and an 18-point triumph over the Red Robins in the overall conference standings.
Though Rhinelander returned half of its starting lineup from last year's conference title team, none of the returning starters were in the same position as the previous season.
The most notable switch came at the top where Johnson essentially swapped places with senior Alex Oestreich, taking the No. 1 singles spot while Oestreich moved to No. 1 doubles.
Rhinelander has not had a state qualifier since Ivy Packard in 2015, but has relied on its depth to carry the weight. Johnson finished only a match above .500 at 14-13 in the top flight and earned the team's most valuable player honors for consistently going up against the best players in the area.
"I think that absorbing those (losses), growing from those and becoming a better player, I think that was part of the reason why she was voted the most valuable player by her teammates," Heideman said during the banquet. "That's a valuable thing for the team. Annika did it with her head up and did it about as well as anybody that I can remember."
Oestreich went 13-17 in the role last year and, shortly following the end of last season, the plan was set in place to move her to doubles where she would team up with good friend and fellow senior Jackie Wells, the only other holdover from last year's doubles lineup.
The end result was a 20-10 record, a runner-up finish in the GNC and the first trip to the WIAA sectional meet for either player.
"I thought, let's put her and Jackie together and if the team is real lucky, it will have a synergistic effect," Heideman said. "That would be they would end up being a doubles team greater than the individual parts. That's kind of what happened."
The two other returning players from last year's squad - Van Zile and Pontell - each moved up a flight with success. Van Zile, a senior, won her third individual conference title while posting a 22-5 record. Pontell, a sophomore, was 26-4 on took the GNC title at No. 3 singles.
Building from the bottom
Though Rhinelander lost five starters from last year's team, it had the luxury of brining in four experience players who hovered around the varsity/JV cutline.
The quartet of Kathryn Borski, Lisa White, Izzy Haverkampf and Jaiden Thiel were a combined 86-4 in varsity reserve/JV matches last year and made an immediate impact on varsity this season, filling the final two doubles spots. White and Borski were 21-9 together while Haverkampf and Thiel went 23-7.
The other blank the Hodags had to fill at the start of the season was No. 4 singles. Metropulos, a junior, emerged following an early season timeshare with freshman Taylor Riopel and posted a 14-3 record en route to an individual conference title.
Heideman said the varsity newcomers played a key role in Rhinelander's title defense.
"Part of it was those JVs that moved up -Jaiden, Izzy, Lisa and Kathryn - and filled the spots (at doubles). All of them, I thought, put in harder summers than they did the previous year," he said. "That was an important part. Then Kat filling in at No. 4 singles and Taylor filling in at No. 4 singles. Having the year they did was very important."
For as successful as the Hodags were in the regular season, the team was not able to translate that into a ton of success in the postseason. As one of the smallest schools in Division 1, the Hodags faced a subsectional field that was the entire Wisconsin Valley Conference, plus Antigo.
Though the Hodags went a combined 7-2 against those teams in dual meet play this year, the team was only able to get Oestreich and Wells through to the sectionals.
Rhinelander was stopped a match shy of moving on in five of the remaining six flights.
"It was not the day we had hoped for," Heideman said afterward. "We lost to many of the close matches and sets. That made the difference. We had 4 three setters and a tie break set and we lost them all (except one)."
The Hodags will look to reload, but will likely have to shuffle the deck once more in 2020.
Johnson figures to be the only player who will return in the same spot as this season. Pontell, Metropulos and Riopel would potentially make up the remainder of the singles lineup next season.
The bigger question will be at doubles where Borski is the only player due back. Much like last season, the Hodags are going to rely on a big jump from players who were just outside the varsity lineup for much of the season, that includes junior Alexis Engleking, who was one of Rhinelander's top JV players.
"Last year we took Jackie from No. 3 doubles and we took Alex from No. 1 singles and created a No. 1 doubles team. If you look at the team this year, what's probably going to happen is we're going to move someone from our doubles and then Alexis is kind of next in line. That would mean Alexis would go from a JV to No. 1 doubles. That's a big leap," Heideman said.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at email@example.com.
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