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MARION — Last season’s inexperience yielded surprising results.
Now, the chase for a state title resumes for the Linn-Mar boys’ tennis team.
Two years removed from a 2A team state championship, the Lions are expected to be a factor in the Mississippi Valley Conference and state races, thanks to a deep roster replete with experience from winning a district crown and finishing 2016 two duals shy of a third straight state semifinal appearance.
“Last year, we played a little bit above what we thought we could play,” Linn-Mar Coach Chris Wundram said. “This year, I feel like we can compete with anybody. We’ve got guys that have really grinded over the offseason. Last year, I think they were kind of looking for leadership and maybe lacked a little bit of confidence. We’re not missing any of that this year, that’s for sure.”
Linn-Mar is ranked fifth in the Iowa Tennis Coaches Class 2A preseason poll. The Lions open with a pair of duals against No. 6 Waukee and 10th-ranked West Des Moines Dowling Saturday at the Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Center in Iowa City.
“We’ve all been working really hard in the offseason and we’re all just super-excited for the season,” junior Ben Hediger said. “We’re planning to come out strong.”
Hediger ascended to the No. 1 singles slot last season and placed sixth at the 2A doubles state tournament with teammate Lucas Huffman. Both are embroiled in spirited preseason challenge matches to determine a top three in this year’s lineup, with standout freshman Luke VanDonslear providing an additional threat to claim the top spot.
“He’s going to surprise a lot of people because I think a lot of people think as a freshman he won’t be able to do much damage,” Wundram said of VanDonslear. “But he’s going to beat a lot of good players this year.”
The big serve of 6-foot-6 junior Jack Gertsen returns after missing all of last season with a left knee injury, while fellow junior Zach Glanz, freshman Jackson Eells and sophomore Michael McGrew are competing for spots four through six.
“We’ve got some strong players up top, but I think our depth is probably the best in the state,” Wundram said.
In the MVC, both Linn-Mar and second-ranked Cedar Rapids Washington are in pursuit of No. 1 Iowa City West — winners of four of the last five team state championships.
The Trojans are led by two-time defending singles state champion Jiung Jung, plus doubles state runners-up Cole Schneider and John Wenzel. The 2015 Lions are the only other team to win a team state championship in the last five years.
“If nobody has figured it out yet, the MVC is the best conference in the state for tennis for the last six or seven years,” Wundram said. “And it’s going to be for the next three or four years.”
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