It’s the ideal scenario for the Winthrop girls tennis team. In fact, coach Jess Merrill had another word for it.

“It’s kind of like the dream,” she said.

Indeed, few teams are faced with as fortunate a situation as the Ramblers are this spring. All 11 players who led Winthrop to an 8-2 record last season are back this time, giving Merrill her entire singles and doubles ladder — just one year older, one year better, and one year hungrier.

Winthrop’s Bre Feeney serves while she and Alexis Emery play a doubles match against Madison’s Abi Spaulding and Mickayla Violette on Monday in Winthrop. Kennebec Journal photo by Drew Bonifant

“We’ve got this goal. … We know we can have a strong team and we can hopefully go deep in the playoffs,” Merrill said. “The girls are confident, they’re challenging each other in practice, and it’s been really awesome to watch them go.”

So far, the Ramblers have been applying that drive and determination to the young season. Winthrop drew Carrabec, Hall-Dale and Madison — teams that last year went a combined 25-5 in the regular season — in its first three matches and left them in its wake, earning 4-1 wins against the first two teams and then a 5-0 win against Madison Monday afternoon.

“We’ve got another season to prove even more,” said No. 3 singles player Natalie Frost, who Monday earned a 6-0, 6-1 win over Madison’s Olivia Clough. “It’s exciting because we’ve got a lot of athletes. It’s going to be a really exciting season.”

It’s a different story than last year. Last year, the Ramblers had players in new spots, and girls who were new to either the game or their roles were hesitant and conservative on the court.

This time, Merrill’s seen a new demeanor.

“Last year it was really just ‘OK, let’s figure this out,’ ” Merrill said. “Everyone last year was in a new spot. So this year, it’s just really getting them used to being more aggressive and liking to be more aggressive, and be more offensive. They’re a lot more comfortable doing that.”

Continuity, and the experience that comes with it, has had a major impact. Frost is back in her spot, as is Nora Conrad in the top singles position (where she earned a marathon 6-2, 7-6 (8-6 tiebreaker) win over Madison’s Breanna Kanagy) and Gabrielle Blanco (a 6-3, 6-2 winner over Kynsey Hibbard) in the second.

They’re definitely baseline players,” Merrill said. “So getting them to come to the net and get more opportunities that way, that’s what we’re really working on right now.”

Frost said they’ve started making those improvements.

“I think we thrive with the short balls, more toward the net,” she said. “That’s where we really get people. And with our quickness, we’re a really athletic team.”

Nowhere has the continuity been felt more, however, than in doubles, where Bre Feeney and Alexis Emery (6-0, 6-2 winners Monday) and Hannah Duley and Dana Lesko (6-0, 6-0 winners) get to benefit from a whole season spent learning each other’s styles, games and preferences.

“It definitely helps. All of us are pretty close, but being with (Emery) a second year, I guess we’re closer,” Feeney said. “We understand the game a little better, we know each other a little better. That helps us out.”

Still, recognizing the high ceiling for her team, Merrill has pushed her players further this season, and they’ve seen the benefits in all aspects of the game.

“We do a lot of drills in practice, and we work really hard on placement, serving and how fast we’re serving,” Frost said. “We want to progress as much as we can, we want to hit it more to the sides and more to the alleys. And with our doubles, we want to have more communication. We’ve been doing a really good job with that this year.”

Merrill said she’s seen intangible improvements in addition to the physical ones.

We’ve done a really good job of keeping our composure, where I would say last year, our singles play, it was all new to them,” she said. “None of these girls played singles until last year, so it was new for all of them. Just the confidence level from all of the players has been awesome.”

Merrill hasn’t always had to be the one hammering those points home. Conrad and Feeney have thrived as leaders in their senior seasons, and helped guide a team that, all signs suggest, will be a true Class C contender.

For them to have that confidence level to really say ‘Hey, let’s do it this way, let’s try this way,’ it’s nice to see I don’t have to talk all the time,” Merrill said. “It’s nice to have them point out things to each other. … When they speak up and say something, (the rest) listen.”


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