BENTON — If there was ever a year where the Benton Panthers should run away with the season, it should be this year. With a squad made up of 18 seniors (10 boys and eight girls), the Benton tennis team should have no problem with their competition.
Especially since most of the squads they will be facing have almost no returning starters, including last year’s winners Lake Hamilton (boys) and Sheridan (girls).
Benton’s senior led team is due to the recruiting efforts of a core group of players about four years ago when they were freshman.
“They recruited their friends,” head coach Justin Warner said. “And their friends were athletic and tennis suited them.
“We haven’t had the younger players do quite the recruiting that that core group did.”
“Of course I try to reach out to kids on other squads. Mainly, good athletic kids that just don’t get an opportunity to play as much.”
Last year, the Benton Panthers and the Lady Panthers both finished second in the conference. Senior Austin Willis finished as the number one single on the team with the best record at the state tournament.
Willis advanced to the quarterfinals of the state tournament before being eliminated.
Lake Hamilton finished first in the conference.
“They had a phenomenal team and they are returning one man [Spencer Turner] who played doubles for them last year,” Warner said. “His older brother was the state champion last year.
“They kind of have tennis in their background. Four years ago, their older sister was one of the top singles in the state.
“He is going to be good and give our boys a challenge.”
Benton is led by senior Eric Emmons and Willis, also a senior. They will compete in the singles competition while seniors Dudley Stow and Ian McMahan will compete as the number one doubles team.
The number two doubles team consist of seniors Sam Anderson and Jake Jakonczuk.
“Our number one and number are really interchangeable as to who is number one,” Warner said. “We have a lot of parody on the team. They feel they will compete for the conference and state singles titles.”
Warner added they have “both been working hard for several years now and they feel like it is their turn.
“They are working hard to make sure that happens.”
The girls team has a lot of returning talent as well and Warner fully expects for them to contend for the title as well.
Leading the way in the singles competition will be senior Lauren Dudley and Malika Akbar. In doubles, seniors Any Jivan, Emily Parker, Mariah Temple and sophomore Abby McAtee are expected to do well.
“Sheridan, the number one team last year lost a lot including their head coach [Rick] Treadway,” Warner said. “He transfered to Pulaski Academy and his daughter, who was one of the better players on the team, followed her dad to P.A.”
Sheridan lost their top two players, who were the best in the conference and one of the best in the state.
“When you lose that kind of talent, it hurts. But our girls are ready to step up and earn that role,” Warner said.
Obviously one of the biggest strengths for Benton this season is their experience.
“The hard work and the hours that my top players have put in ever since the season ended,” Warner said. “There are some of them that haven’t put the racket down since the end of last season.”