The season began for the heart of the Conneaut tennis team, not in August, when official practice began, but in June when school let out. That extra work has paid big dividends for coach Dave Simpson and his Spartans as they have run their record to a stellar 14-0.
“One of the things any coach will tell his players is they’ve got to work in the offseason,” Simpson said. “It’s difficult for them. They do so many things and they’re pulled in so many different directions.
“Basically, 4 of our 8 regular players played all summer long as part of the ladder program (St. John coach) Todd Nassief developed.”
Those 4 players represent each class at Conneaut and include senior Scott Gerdes, junior Jacob Edwards, sophomore Rashad Al-Arabi and freshman Adam Laitinen.
“They just played a lot of tennis,” Simpson said. I really appreciate Todd Nassief putting together that program. We really benefited from it and you can really see it.
“Their level of play has brought up the level of play for the others. Their good athletes and that, along with any of the tennis skills they’ve developed, helped get us to the point where we are.”
Those other players are all sophomores and include Tyee Stewart, Sean O’Meara, Adam Bissett, Gage Janek and Alex Gerdes.
It isn’t just the ladder program which helped the Spartans.
“Those guys not only played the ladder program, they took individual lessons
and went to camps and clinics,” Simpson said. “Scott and Jacob went to a camp in Kirtland Hills.”
Those individual lessons were beneficial to the entire team.
“They help instruct the other players,” Simpson said. “They can say, ‘On the forehand, do this,’ or ‘when you’re serving, try that.’
“They picked up some things and they’re willing to share them with their teammates. They help to better their teammates and in turn, those teammates have accepted that kind of leadership.”
The Spartans have developed a closeness that’s allowed for the aforementioned relationship to be possible. It’s also made the perfect season possible.
“It’s a good group of young men,” Simpson said. “They have been working well together. As a result, I’m able to spread those 4 through the lineup.
“Adam has been playing No. 1, but Jacob played there once and won. Scott, our senior, is normally No. 2. Rashad plays third singles most of the time, but he also plays some second doubles. Jacob Edwards is able to play first doubles with Alex Gerdes and we’re undefeated this year at that spot.
“Alex is an amazing athlete. He plays doubles because of his quickness and agility. He really compliments Jacob’s power and tennis skills.”
On their way to the 14 wins and a perfect season, the Spartans beat Geneva for just the second time in 50 years. They also won a number of close matches.
“In the Geneva match, they were missing their second-singles player,” Simpson said. “Would it have made a difference? I don’t know. Brent McFarland is a heck of a tennis player.
“Adam lost at first singles, Scott Gerdes won and Rashad won at third singles. We won first doubles.”
That win over the Eagles was a perfect example of how the Spartans won a number of close matches.
“We won 2 of 3 singles’ matches and our first doubles’ team won,” Simpson said. “We have kids who can play anywhere and we’re able to move all 7 of them around the lineup.
“Depth really makes a difference. Sometimes, that’s hard for the kids’ egos, but you’ve got to have somebody willing to play in those positions and do whatever they need to do to help the team win.”
The Spartans were much better with the pressure of an unbeaten record as well as the number of close matches than was their fearless leader.
“It was both exciting and stressful,” Simpson said. “There were times the pressure was on. There were times in past years we knew we didn’t have a chance (to win), so the focus was on just playing the best we could.
“This year, going into every match, we knew we had a chance to win most of the matches, if not all of them. It was exciting, but at the same time there was a lot of pressure to keep up (the winning).
“The kids were more confident than I was. There were times they’d say, ‘It’s OK, Coach. We’ve got this.’ ”
Conneaut may have finished the year undefeated, but Simpson is quick to point out that there were some losses during the season.
“I tell people how our record is (14-0), but we are 0-6 against the weather,” he said. “We have run into that affliction, not belonging to a league. Teams have been willing to make up matches, but they haven’t been able to fit them into their schedules because they have 5 or 6 league matches to get in.”
Keeping on a roll was very difficult with all the rainy weather throughout the spring.
“That’s very difficulty physically as well as mentally,” Simpson said. “One of the hard things to deal with is the weather. There were times we were in the van and ready to pull out and we’d get a phone call asking if we still wanted to come.
“We’d actually be sitting out in the van waiting for a decision on whether we’d get to play or not. It’s physically and mentally difficult to stay sharp. There were a few matches we’d have a slow start and we’d drop a couple of points before we were ready.”
Though Simpson and the Spartans are rivals to the different Ashtabula County programs, the coaches of many of those teams were very helpful.
“The other coaches have been tremendous,” Simpson said. “They’ve both helped and encouraged my kids. Lou Murphy at Jefferson, Bob Walters at Lakeside, Phil Dubsky at Geneva and Todd Nassief (at St. John) — those guys, in particular, have talked to my kids. As tennis coaches, they all want to see good tennis. They’ve offered advice, told the kids about camps.
“I really appreciate those guys offering their help and advice to my kids.”
Those gentlemen weren’t the only coaches Simpson leaned on.
“I’d also like to thank former Conneaut coaches Tom Ritari and Don Laitinen,” Simpson said. “Again, their advice has been instrumental and vital.”
The difficult part for Simpson, who will return 8 of his 9 players next year, will be getting them to continue to work in order to continue the success that began last June into next season and beyond.
“Again, it comes down to how much they work at it,” Simpson said. “We graduate Scott, who has been a tremendous leader by example on the court as well as in the classroom. Losing him will leave us a hole to fill. We will have to depend on some kids who did not play as much last summer.”
Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.