COLUMBIA — A season ago, the Rock Bridge boys tennis team upset Rockhurst to win their first state championship and finish the season undefeated at 26-0. The Bruins did so with a combination of talent and veteran leadership.
This season, only three Rock Bridge players return with varsity experience. Of the team's 24 players, 18 are sophomores and freshmen.
Rock Bridge at Jefferson City
WHEN: 4 p.m., Tuesday, April 7
WHERE: Jefferson City High School
Bruins coach Ben Loeb, who enters his 21st year of coaching high school tennis, said this year's team will have to grow up fast if they hope to retain their title.
“With a younger team, sometimes you can lack some leadership and also experience and maturity on how to handle tough competitive situations,” Loeb said. “It’s a hard thing to teach and some of that they have to get through experience.”
Freshman Ford Zitsch has taken over the Bruins' No. 1 singles spot, earning it with impressive showings in practice. Zitsch, who defeated Tony Stephenson, a senior from Helias, on Wednesday for the first victory of his high school career, has played since he was 10 years old.
His match was the only close one in a dual that the Bruins (1-0) won 9-0 over the Crusaders.
But this is the first time Zitsch has played on an organized tennis team, and while he has played other sports (football, hockey, soccer and baseball), tennis has always been at the top of his list.
“It was the most exciting,” Zitsch said. “It was my favorite sport. I decided to stick with it and work at this one. It’s an individual sport and that’s kind of what I like because everything’s on you. You can’t blame your teammates, it’s all you out there.”
Zitsch said he loves the responsibility and does not feel a lot of pressure from the expectations that people have for him. He knows he has to do his part, but he said the team has the talent to repeat.
“Our team has a lot of depth,” Zitsch said. “That’s where we excel. One through 10 we’re really strong. We’re really deep as a team. There’s not much difference between the caliber of players.”
Loeb said that Zitch is exceptionally talented for his age, and he thinks the freshman can step in as a leader this season
It’s a unique thing,” Loeb said. “The key is, in a sport like tennis, if you get a lot of experience at a younger age, you can step in and it’s not overwhelming for you, if you’ve had that experience in junior development. It’s not as unusual as in a sport like football, but it’s still a great accomplishment.”
But Loeb is depending heavily on his returning players, Blake Buchert, Aaron Skinner and Jimmy Hunter, to provide leadership.
Buchert, a junior, and Skinner, a sophomore, won a state doubles title last year. Buchert said winning a state championship was the thrill of a lifetime. He added that while the team has lost a lot of veteran leadership, the team is still filled with talent.
“We definitely lost a lot,” Buchert said. “We lost six of our top 11 guys due to seniors leaving. Last year, we had nine or 10 freshmen. I don’t know if we really have quite as much senior leadership. In order to win state, we’ve just got to use our talent. I think we’re more talented this year than we were last year.”
Buchert said he is excited to take on more of a leadership role this season.
“The biggest thing is just out here in practice, we must show how to do things the right way,” Buchert said.
Rebuilding is not the Bruins' ultimate goal. Neither is making it back to their eighth straight final four. They want to make it all the way to the finals this year and hope that Rockhurst is staring back at them once again.
“It’s like beating the Wizard of Oz,” Loeb said. “They’re the standard. They’re the favorite every year. They have a huge advantage over most every other school. To beat a school that has the advantages that they’ve got is as rewarding as it gets.”
Other teams have improved, including Jefferson City, which the Bruins will play at 4 p.m., Tuesday at Jefferson City.
Loeb said he isn’t concerned with the Bruins' record. He wants to get his team the experience they need so that they can bring Rock Bridge its second straight boys’ tennis state title.
“I’d rather go 20-6 and win a state title, than go 25-1 and not,” Loeb said.