Wichita Independent's return to Class 3-2-1A boys tennis after a year in Class 4A places a familiar obstacle in the Panthers' path — Wichita Collegiate.
Independent coach Simon Norman said, regardless of which class the schools are in, the Panthers and Spartans have a healthy rivalry.
A year ago, Independent finished second in the 4A tournament behind Smoky Valley. Meanwhile, Collegiate was clinching its third 3-2-1A title in the past four years.
Now, three-time state singles champion Ryan Norman has graduated and is playing at Creighton, but younger brother Jake is among a core of five players that Simon Norman will look to this season.
Independent will be bolstered by the return of seniors Christian Kilgore and Conner Smith, and juniors Corban Aspegren and Colten Anderson. Those four, plus Jake Norman, will be Independent's core players, although Simon Norman said there are others who could break through.
Norman said he has about eight or nine players vying for the six varsity spots but said he will decide based on how each player's strength fits the particular tournament.
"My thing is that they'll play to whatever gives the team the best chance to win," Norman said.
Aspegren's best strength is his mental makeup, Norman said.
"He's a great competitor," Norman said.
As for his son, Norman said not to be deceived by Jake being a freshman.
"We'll see how it goes, but he plays men all the time," Simon Norman said.
The other junior in the mix, Anderson, has experienced a growth spurt and filled out physically, which Norman expects will help his game.
"He's about up to 6-1 or 6-2," Norman said. "He's got a pretty good serve on him and has good groundstrokes."
As for the seniors, left-hander Kilgore is strong and can hit the ball hard, Norman said.
Smith, his coach said, is a good athlete who also competed on the Panthers' soccer team this year.
Norman said that soccer skills can benefit a tennis player.
"The footwork is very complementary," he said. "Balance applies to both sports as well as judgment — you need to know how fast the ball is coming."
The Panthers will not have to wait long to get a look at Collegiate, opening their season at the Collegiate Invitational on March 29.
However, facing the Spartans this early in the season might not give as good a read on his competition as it might later in the year, Norman said.