Helias tennis team enters season with 25 players

There aren’t that many tennis courts in Jefferson City, so trying to find an open one can be troublesome at times.

But it could be worse — you could be this year’s Helias girls tennis team.

The Lady Crusaders boast a whopping 25 players on their roster, so the huddle after practice resembles those often seen on a football field rather than near a tennis court at Washington Park.

Helias coach Margaret Shimkus said the roster might be the biggest one for girls tennis in the school’s history.

“If it’s not the top, it has to be the second,” she said. “... We have a solid team and they’ve all worked hard. They’re positive, they seem to all get along, it’s just been a lot of fun.”

About the only problem has been logistics.

“We’re trying to squeeze them all in,” Shimkus said, “so I’m here (at the courts) a long time because we decided to split up the JV and varsity so they could have some more court time, and some more coach time.”

Shimkus was quick to add she didn’t want to make any cuts.

“What we all have to remember is it’s high school, and I want them to have the full high-school experience, and being a part of a team is part of that,” she said. “They like that. I had a few players that came out once they got cut from another team and I think they just wanted somewhere to go, some connection. Now they have some identity and that’s good.”

The Lady Crusaders will get the season started at 4 p.m. today when they take on the Jefferson City Lady Jays.

“The girls are ready to get into (the season),” Shimkus said. “They’re excited about it, I’m excited about it. We just feed off of each other in that way.

“You always get that little nervousness right before the very first match, or a little anxious, but I think they’ll calm down quickly.”

Helping in that regard is the experience on the squad.

“All of my top seven girls are letterwinners from last year, so they’re going to be poised,” Shimkus said.

Holding down the No. 1 singles spot is sophomore Ashley Dowden, the same position she held last year.

“She only lost one match last year all year, she lost her sectional match to Colleen Mellinger from Glendale,” Shimkus said. “But (Mellinger) moved, so she’s no longer there. Ashley was like, ‘I wanted to play that girl again.’ That was the only match that kept her from going to state, so I’m sure she was motivated by that.”

There are six other players in the mix for the five varsity spots — seniors Abbey Verslues, Abigail Bullock and Casey Clogston, juniors Lauren Highfill and Becca Shelton, and sophomore Mary Conley. However, Shimkus wasn’t willing to divulge what order they would play today, either to the players or the media.

“Ashley Dowden will be the No. 1 for sure, I told them the rest will be a gametime decision,” she said. “The rest are really close.”

So close that challenge matches in the preseason haven’t clarified much.

“Ashley is at No. 1 because she’s the only one who hasn’t lost to anybody,” Shimkus said. “... I have a list in my head (for the rest), I pretty much know who I’m going to put where. Then it will be who can do it in the matches, because honestly, practices don’t matter. You’ve got to be able to produce when the match comes around, you’ve got to be able to be competitive, you’ve got to be able to stay positive. Tennis is a mental game so my assistant Rick Baer and I, that’s what we watch for, to see who comes out to play the matches.”

It’s a similar story for the doubles teams, where Shimkus didn’t want to tip her hand.

“I definitely have an idea, I’ve been mixing them up,” she said. “It doesn’t really change too much from last year at this point, unless I see something that’s just not working. ... You’ve got to have that good chemistry and they’ve got to feel the sync of playing together. We’ve been working on that.

“The cool thing about the girls is that, for the most part, they’re like, ‘I don’t care, whoever you think I’ll play best with, coach.’ So they really do have a good attitude and they all get along.”

That has the coaches and players excited about the season.

“All I can say is it’s been pleasant and I think we’re going to be solid,” Shimkus said. “I think we’re going to win some matches and have a good season, as long as we can keep everybody healthy.

“The girls have high goals. Not just where they’re going to place on the team, but where the team is gong to place. They’re team-oriented.”

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