Last year was a tough one for the Helias boys tennis team. Not only in the on-court results, but just in the work it took to get on the court.
"We have no place to go but up," said Helias head coach Margaret Shimkus, whose team went 1-9 last season. "They learned a lot last year. Last year, half the team didn't even have a racket coming into practice. This year, they were prepared and ready to go and excited about the season."
The good news for the Crusaders is they'll have plenty of battle-tested performers, as they return five of their top six singles players. And 10 members of the 15-man roster are returnees.
"We have really good leadership and are strong on experience," Shimkus said.
The experience got even more pronounced during a preseason that seemed interminable.
"With the boys season, it seems like we have to wait so long for a match, so we're excited about starting," Shimkus said. "I think they're ready. We've had a lot better practices (than last year), a lot more practices outside. We haven't had the 10 inches of snow on the courts, so we've had a lot of good court time."
That time has resulted in time to bond for the younger players with the old, along with some of the upperclassmen joining the roster for the first time.
"Some of the ones coming in as juniors and seniors are doing so for the first time," Shimkus said. "They bring some athleticism in. Most of them have played another sport, like soccer or football, and none of them are brand-new to tennis, like last year. They've hit around or had some experience with a racket in hand.
"I think it's going to be a better year and hopefully get a few more Ws."
To do so, Shimkus said the team focused on doing everything better, not just one or two things.
"We got clobbered all across the board," she said of last season. "The biggest thing was getting them out there, practicing in the offseason, and getting them to come back and be enthusiastic about it. I think they chalked it up as a learning experience and I think they all came out pretty excited.
"... I think they're more confident this year and they're going to carry that into the matches, the positive attitude, just feeling they've matured in the sport."
That experience may come in handy since the Crusaders won't often get to play in a comfort zone. Their first three matches, and eight out of their first 11, are on the road. They begin the season today at Battle, although not everyone will get a chance to play since the first-year Columbia school will not field a full team.
"We're going to be road warriors," Shimkus said.
The Crusaders have three seniors who spent time in the top six singles spots last year - Kirk Twehous, Jeremy Wolters and Caleb Seidel.
"They bring in some good experience," Shimkus said.
Ethan Lesko, a junior who played No. 2 last year, also returns to provide veteran leadership.
"He is looking really good," Shimkus said. "He's really worked on his ground strokes and his consistency has improved."
The other returning varsity performer is sophomore T.J. Hagenhoff, while classmate Ryan Pollock is the last returning letterwinner, as he played mostly at No. 7 last year and will move into the varsity lineup on a consistent basis.
"They've all improved," Shimkus said. "... I'm excited about things after watching them. I don't see all those lobs, I'm seeing good hits."
The rest of the squad includes seniors Adam Bexten, Holden Hirsch, David Huber and Braden Toebben; juniors Klint Braun and Dane Haugen; sophomores Mark Lamb and Ryan Pollock; and freshmen Jordon Cowell and Jordan Roling.