Boys tennis: Willmar Cardinals are looking for a few surprises
A young squad with two upperclassmen hopes to improve upon last season's 3-14 record, including an 0-8 mark in the Central Lakes Conference
WILLMAR — Head coach Forrest Rice believes his Willmar boys team team is one of his most mature squads he has coached, yet it is also one of the youngest he has had as well. The Cardinals have two upperclassmen.
This mix of youthfulness and maturity has Rice excited for what is to come for his Cardinals this spring. Willmar has had two matches rescheduled but is scheduled to open up its 2023 season at 4:30 p.m. Friday at Sauk Rapids.
"This is one of the years I am more confident about," Rice said. "I am really happy with a young team. ... There's a lot of growth we can have."
Rice also feels this team will be more consistent throughout its lineup.
"It's not as big a drop off as we've had in the past," Rice said. "Everyone worked hard in the off-season, so that's helped a lot. I've seen a lot of improvement in our kids."
As for the lineup, Rice has a fairly good idea of how his group will align. But he also recognizes that changes can be made throughout the season.
At No. 1 singles will be sophomore Ryan Newberg. He and sophomore Brandon Escalon-Valladares will serve as team captains. It is the first time the Cardinals decided their captains through a team vote under Rice.
Newberg and Escalon-Valladares were announced as Willmar's captains Thursday.
"Since the moment that I joined my freshman year, I've always wanted to be a leader," Newberg said on Wednesday before knowing he would become a team captain. "I think it's OK to have young leaders. They can really learn from mistakes along the way., but overall, build a better character."
Sophomore Gabe LaRue is set to slot in at No. 2 singles. He is making the switch to singles after playing doubles with Newberg for much of the 2022 season.
At No. 3 singles is eighth-grader Sam Loerzel. Eyeing the No. 4 singles spot is freshman Nehemiah Van Horne.
Rice discovered Loerzel through joint practices with the Willmar Middle School program. This marks the first year joint practices have occurred under Rice.
"We were able to spot (him) a little earlier, which was nice to do," Rice said.
Rice believes sophomore Aaron Marthaler and Escalon-Valladares will slot in at No. 1 doubles. After that, he has some experimenting to undertake with his No. 2 and No. 3 doubles teams.
Tentatively, Rice plans to have senior Josh Jensen and junior Mateo Engan at No. 2 doubles and sophomore Miguel Garcia and freshman Carter Newberg at No. 3 doubles.
"We'll see how they pan out and see which ones work better as a team," Rice said.
Willmar had a 3-14 record in 2022, including 0-8 in the Central Lakes Conference. Brainerd (15-8) won the CLC title with an 8-1 record. Alexandria (15-11) was close behind at 8-2.
It is clear that the Cardinals want to earn more wins this spring, especially a few in the CLC.
"We're going to really try our best to do even better this season," Ryan Newberg said. "I think we're going to have a lot of upsets."