FORT SCOTT -- Fort Scott High School's girls' tennis team has 16 players out this season, about the same number it had last year. But there's one big difference: Seniors.
Last year's team had no seniors. This year, there are three: Taylor Bailey, Kalia Dancy and Bailee Hall. There are also four juniors, all of whom gained some varsity experience last year, and five returning sophomores, two of whom played extensively on varsity.
Having seniors means having experience and it also means having leadership.
"This is Taylor's fourth year in the program," Fort Scott head coach Lynn Barr said Friday afternoon. "It's Kalia's third. And the experience is showing and the juniors are doing a good job of setting an example and working hard."
And maybe that experience and leadership has already started to trickle down.
"One of my freshmen the other night asked her mom, 'Can I stay an hour late after practice ... so (she and another freshman) can practice some more?'," Barr said, quite pleased that a novice has picked up on the idea that better practice will ultimately lead to better play.
The first week of practice has gone well with good weather most of the week. The Tigers have been going through playoff matches to determine positions on varsity and junior varsity. But they had to cut that short on Friday in order to work in some doubles practice. Tennis is the sport in Kansas that can begin its season the earliest and the JV will be hosting a tournament Monday afternoon.
Four spots on the varsity have been determined although the positions they will play will be sorted out later. Bailey is the only four-year player and played mostly doubles last season with Michelle Buntain, who is a sophomore. Dancy, a third-year player, played mostly singles last season but also saw some doubles action. Corina Harrison, another sophomore, played mostly doubles at the varsity level last season.
"The first few matches, there could be some trial and error," Barr said, "until we see exactly where everybody fits. We're trying to come up with what will be our strongest lineup -- what lineup gives us the best chance to score (team) points."
Having four experienced players who can be put into any position gives Barr lineup options. He could choose to put his experience into the two singles positions and use the other two in a doubles slot or he could pair all four into two doubles teams.
"And if some of the younger players come on, that will just help us that much more," Barr said.
Bailee Hall, a second-year senior, saw limited time on varsity last season. Third-year junior Ashlyn Baugher played doubles with six different partners but was paired with Harrison most often. Sammi Carr and Heather Hobbs, third-year juniors, and Hannah Messer, a second-year junior, saw bits of time on varsity. Hobbs' time was the most extensive, most of that in singles.
All but one sophomore is a second-year player. In addition to Buntain and Harrison, Aubin Duff, Krista Hightower and Kelsey How return to the program, all playing exclusively on the JV last season. Becky Lemke is out for the first time.
Freshmen are Brittany Burns, Courtney Crain, Jasmine Davis, Mariah Garrison, Chandrieia Judson, Vickie Lemke and Kandice Rost.
The Tigers have taken their lumps the last two seasons as there were not a lot of upperclassmen. Barr has seen improvement in just these first five days of practice.
"We're better than last year," he said. "But we also don't know that a lot of other players and teams might be better than last year, too. So we don't know how that works out yet."
Independence, which has won at least a share of the last six Southeast Kansas League championships and 27 in total, is expected to be the favorite again this season, Parsons, which has won the SEK 10 times, is expected to challenge Independence.
"We're still at a point where every match will be a challenge for us," Barr said. "Everyone will be tough."
The opponents in Monday's JV tournament, which begins at 3 p.m., will be Pittsburg, Iola, Independence and Columbus. The first varsity tournament will be at Parsons Thursday at 3 p.m.
The Tiger JV will have another home tournament on Sept. 13. The varsity will have two home dates this season: Sept. 21 when it plays host to Columbus, Labette County and Independence in a four-team, round-robin tournament, and Sept. 28 when it and the JV welcome Nevada for a dual.