COLUMBIA — The Rock Bridge boys tennis team is still the two-time defending Class 2 Missouri state champion. But the Bruins are going to have to overcome a noticeable lack of experience if they want a state championship three-peat.
The Bruins were hard at work, sliding back and forth on the wet, green concrete during rain showers at Cosmo-Bethel Park on Wednesday. But they were without players such as Jimmy Hunter and *Joe LaRose, seniors on last year's defending championship team who graduated after last season.
"We’ve lost some key people," coach Ben Loeb said. "We lost some really good tennis experience. That’s a big loss. We lost some really good on-court experience and we lost some ability to deal with adversity.
"We have a younger group. They’re not as mature as the group we had last year. So for some of us, it’s going to involve some on-the-job training."
Even with a younger group, the season goals are unchanged.
"We also have some good potential in the people that are stepping up," Loeb said. "We’ve won the state title the last two years in a row. From an outcome standpoint, we’d like to win the state title again. It’d be a great feat."
Rock Bridge will rely on its three seniors — Jack Fay, Jeremy Lombardo and Ford Zitsch* — to lead by example toward a possible third consecutive title.
"Ford is a special player," Loeb said. "I think he’s the best player in the state, and I think he’s the best player to come out of Columbia as far as high school tennis goes."
Ford has been the Bruins' N0. 1 singles player since he was a freshman.
"He’s a rare talent but I want him to lead by example on how he goes about doing things and be consistent about that," Loeb said. "And hope some of these guys that haven’t had as much experience can see the ones who have and choose to make the right choices for how they go about it."
The Bruins will have the state title on their minds this season, but they know they have a tough road to get there.
"Certainly, there’s going to be some tough competition to be able to get that done," Loeb said about another possible state title.
The tough competition is coming soon. At practice Wednesday, the Bruins were preparing for Rockhurst High School, which they play Thursday in Kansas City.
Rock Bridge has won three of the past four state titles, but Rockhurst has won 12 of the past 20.
"They're the perennial powerhouse," Loeb said about Rockhurst. "They're the standard."
The Bruins won the last time they met Rockhurst in the Class 2 state semifinals last year before continuing on to win the state title.
Because of a weather cancellation against Quincy High School on Monday, Rock Bridge starts its season against Rockhurst at 4 p.m. Thursday at Minor Park, Kansas City.