In past years, Derby tennis coach Dennis Burns worked tirelessly to find the perfect blend of players to make a statement at the 6A state meet.
That work has payed off. The Panthers return five boys with state credentials. Burns can kick his feet up and enjoy watching the team cruise to similar success – but he will not, because Burns believes there are even bigger returns waiting for this group after it realized its potential a year ago.
“To see them live up to some expectations of what we were talking about, yes. We set some higher expectations this year,” Burns said. “They want more.”
The headliners are Dylan Hunter and Shane Swink in No. 1 doubles. The duo placed eighth at state a year ago with a hot start, winning their first two matches.
“It was huge to know that they can compete at that level,” Burns said. “I think a lot of times they don't realize how close they can be.”
Hunter and Swink are in peak shape after helping contribute to the basketball team's third place showing at state. They both recognize there are weaknesses to address, however, starting with serving.
Derby sent its other doubles team to the state meet, as well. Luke Palmer and Shane Fowler picked up a win in the opening round before losing to the eventual state champions.
Senior Braden Baker earned himself a trip to state a year ago, but never picked up a racket. A rolled ankle forced him to settle for the cheering section.
With a little hole not knowing what could have been, Baker is anxious to salve the tiny flaws in his game for a return trip.
“I think the hardest thing for him was being at the state meet and having to watch it all, not being able to play,” Burns said. “We've talked about just making the right decision at the right time. He's worked a lot on his fundamentals and stroke play. Every once in a while, he knows, he plays out of control.”
The cupboard is not just full for Derby – it is overflowing. With five of the six varsity spots virtually locked in, only one singles spot remains.
Justin Briles has done his part to erase any confusion over who might fill that role.
“He has really picked his game up,” Burns said. “He's going to push Baker.”
Westin Biays, Gage Smith and Ben Trease all add depth that is plenty capable, if Derby needs it.
The Panthers finished 12th at the state tournament in 2012. The talented crop of returning stars beckons a flirting shot at a top five performance this year.
Derby will test itself against elite competition. The Ark Valley-Chisholm Trail League Division I tournament on April 29 pits the Panthers against 5A state stalwarts Salina Central and Newton. The schedule also boasts several opportunities to see Wichita Collegiate, the defending 4A champions.
“I hope we play up to the caliber we're able to play at, and we don't get frustrated,” Burns said. “We want to get better, and that means we're going to play the best competition.”