Preview: HHS boys tennis team returns top singles player
Mick Willette, who currently serves as the Hastings boys tennis coach, had a nice career for himself. He went on to play collegiately and has stayed active in the sport.
Many times, he will face off against his team's top singles player as a way to give that individual a good test. This season, it is working the other way around.
Ben Carlson, Hastings' top singles player for the top three seasons, is beating Willette. And he's beating him bad.
Earlier last week, Willette and Carlson faced off and Willette thought he was on his game. Before he knew it, Carlson had beaten him, four games to none.
"That's always bittersweet when that happens," Willette said with a laugh. "Ben's looking pretty good out there."
Carlson will lead the Hastings team this spring, as it looks to take a spot in the top half of the Suburban East Conference standings.
Mounds View and Forest Lake both figure to be at the top of the SEC standings, with a pack of teams battling for third. Willette wants the Raiders to be in that group.
Hastings returns two of its singles players from last year, including Carlson. In doubles, Hastings returns more experience, and the team figures to be especially strong there.
"We'll be tough in the doubles," Willette said. "We're going to need some solid doubles play, because we're going to be inexperienced at two of our singles spots."
If those inexperienced singles players can step in and step up, Hastings should be a strong contender.
"We have a nice balance of experienced guys and young guys," Willette said. "We need our young guys to compete the way our veteran guys do. Our leaders need to carry us. They need to set the tone for our young guys. We'll have to count on that veteran leadership to show us how it is done."
Captains for this year's team are Ben Carlson, Tyler Mellick, Cody Arndtson and Jalen Sneddeker. All four are seniors.
Carlson was a captain last year. He will be the team's No. 1 singles player for the third straight season.
"That's the one definite in our lineup," Willette said. "He looks physically fit, and he's really developed a devastating ground stroke game, along with his ability to serve and volley. He's made his serve more consistent and powerful. He's got all the parts of his game going right now."
Carlson is hoping to earn a trip to the state meet this season, which is especially difficult in Hastings' section. Teams from Rochester Century and Rochester Mayo are very good, and Red Wing is returning a solid team, too.
"He really wants to do everything in his power to get to the state tournament," Willette said. "That's always been a goal of his, and he's doing everything he can to make that happen."
Arndtson played singles last season and will likely be the team's No. 2 singles player this season.
Mellick will play in the doubles lineup, likely at the No. 1 spot.
Sneddeker and Mellick will likely start the season paired up together at first doubles.
"I see them as being able to step up and be anchors for us in doubles this year," Willette said.
Seniors Lenny Weiss and Drey LaCroix are a pair of seniors who haven't seen varsity time during their careers, but that will likely change for them this season.
"I've seen an extra commitment and focus from them this year," Willette said. "They look like they'll get their varsity chances this year."
Key returning players who will round out the lineup include junior Zach Mellick, who will play some singles and some doubles this year.
"He's just a competitor," Willette said. He's a guy who doesn't have the most natural tennis strokes in the world, but they're getting better. He's so athletic, and so competitive, he finds a way to beat people."
Sophomores Ben Klimek and Steve Roach saw some varsity time last year and could play some doubles together at the No. 2 spot.
Alex Zuzek saw some varsity time last year, too, and he is back for his sophomore season.
Freshmen Craig Nielsen and Austin Houska played varsity as eighth-graders and will see bigger roles this year.
Willette said he wants his team to improve every day this season, and if they can do that they'll be able to improve on their 4-5 SEC record from last year.
"We are cautiously optimistic with these guys," Willette said. "There's a lot of athletes and competitors. I think they have the ability. In looking at our schedule, we think we'll be competitive in every match. We just need to practice hard enough so that every time we go out there, we know we can win. We need to instill that mindset in these guys."