Faircloth leads hungrier, better-conditioned Bobcats in new season

If MHS senior Rachel Faircloth has her way, the Bobcat girls’ tennis team will be as far away from Ames as possible when it comes to the regional tournament.

The four-time defending team champion Little Cyclones have dominated regional play in recent years, and that has left Faircloth on the short end of the state tournament stick.

“My goal this year is to qualify for state,” said Faircloth, who returns to the squad as the No. 1 singles player. “I have beaten a lot of the girls that get to state, but because I am stuck in the regional with Ames, I haven’t been able to get there.”

Faircloth was ousted in the quarterfinals last year and finished singles play at 6-6. Her second straight season as the Bobcats’ top player has been a little different than a year ago.

And she knows that just because she is the clear-cut No. 1 in 2013, she is not guaranteed to hold down that spot just on name alone.

“It’s more difficult. More eyes are on me. I am expected to play at a certain level,” Faircloth said. “We do challenge matches every day. It can get taken away at any point. I need to prove that I should be No. 1. Nothing is given to me.”

The Bobcats are once again led by coach Dennis Paul. It will be his third year as head man after serving the previous 10 years as the Bobcat assistant.

This year, Paul welcomed 32 players at the start of the season. That number has dropped to 21, mainly because Paul said some just didn’t want to work hard.

“We need to be a better conditioned team because we lost a lot of tiebreakers last year that were lost because we were not in good enough shape,” Paul said. “We don’t cut anyone. You cut yourself by not showing up to practice. The ones that are still here are hungry. They want to be here and they want to work hard. They are here for a reason.”

Challenge matches will decide how the lineup shakes out in the final five varsity single spots. Paul doesn’t expect Faircloth to lose her grip on No. 1 but seniors Rhetta Wenk, Megan Rachuy and Maggie Kelehan as well as juniors Kathleen Ferrin and Ashley Beaty will all be in the mix for the final five spots.

Where they are positioned will depend on the head-to-head battles that are being conducted in practice every day.

“We will have challenges all season,” Paul said. “Wenk, Rachuy and Kelehan will be a battle all season long. All three are pretty even. We will play different people at different times. We’ll see who steps up.”

The battle for No. 2 is likely down to Wenk, Rachuy and Kelehan. Ferrin and Beaty also could get pushed in the final few spots by junior Sam Tocheri and sophomore Ellen Podhajsky.

The five doubles teams are essentially lined up, according to Paul.

Faircloth will be partnered with Wenk, while Rachuy and Kelehan will be partners. The other teams are expected to be Ferrin-Beaty, Tocheri-Podhajsky and sophomore Megan Riemenschneider and Yelitza Patricio. Sophomore Keyana Vasquez is another young Bobcat who could see varsity action this year.

“We have played together before,” Faircloth said of her and Wenk. “It’ll be fun. We’ll have fun together.”

There is no real scientific strategy to Paul matching up his doubles partners. He puts the best players with each other.

“I pretty much do that right down the line,” Paul said.

The big challenge so far for the Bobcats has not been with anything on the court. It has been with the weather, which has prevented the squad from even getting on the court.

“We have been indoors up until the last three days. It has been horrible,” Paul said. “The entire state is behind. It’s hurt every tennis team around the state. We are all at a disadvantage. We need to be playing over a net. We have been going through drills and pretending there is a net, but it’s not the same. We have to get outdoors.”

The CIML will once again be tough sledding.

Ames is looking to post its fifth straight Class 2A team title despite losing back-to-back state champion Jessica King to graduation.

“They are very strong,” Paul said of Ames. “They have top-notch facilities, they play year round with their indoor facilities and they get professional coaching in the offseason.”

Johnston will be another contender in the conference thanks to a strong set of doubles teams. Urbandale and West Des Moines Valley also are expected to be very good, according to Paul.

The biggest goal of the season for Paul is to find a way to get Faircloth to the state tournament. There is no question the Bobcat head coach believes his top player is good enough. But it is discouraging that his squad always gets matched up with Ames in the regional.

“Rachel has beaten a lot of the girls who get to state from other regions,” Paul said. “I wish they would split us up once in a while. We can’t always avoid them, and that’s fine, but I wish it wasn’t every year that we faced them in regionals.”

Marshalltown went 4-8 in duals last year.

The Bobcats began the season Monday at home against Pella and then host Newton on Tuesday. Both matches – weather permitting – will begin with singles action at 4:15 p.m.

The Bobcats also welcome new assistant coach Blake Cutright, who served as a high school boys coach in Illinois the past two seasons. He is an Illinois native and played tennis collegiately at Lakeland College.