The arrival of Windermere High put a dent into the West Orange tennis program, but coach Scott Baker and his players are ready for the new season.
If you sit in on a tennis practice at West Orange High, everything seems pretty normal.
Coach Scott Baker paces around the court as he shouts out instructions to his players who, in return, turn words into actions.
These early practices as the season starts always are helpful for teams as young as the Warriors — who only have one upperclassman and no seniors — as it allows for much-needed bonding for a program still feeling the effects caused by the opening of Windermere High.
“The new school opening took a lot of our players that were very young — they’re juniors now,” Baker said. “We had three freshmen starting, and then they went to the new school. It’s almost like we are rebuilding the program again, kind of from scratch a little bit.
“And then the other school is right next to us, so they have sort of become our rival,” he said. “So I just approached it that we just have to take the kids we have, and we are going to grow those kids into young men and use tennis as the vehicle to do that.”
Baker took over the program three years ago, and since then his main job — besides coaching — has been to get kids to buy into the program.
It takes a lot, especially mentally and emotionally, for high-school players to put faith into the rebuilding process, but if you ask any of the 10 athletes on the West Orange roster if they are up to the challenge, they all will give you the same answer: Yes.
And in some cases, having a team comprised mostly of freshmen and sophomores is seen as a positive for the team’s lone upperclassman.
“(Because) we are all new, we still have like a year or two to build on each other, so it won’t be like as if we all came during senior year and only got to be together for a year and leave,” junior Evan Newland said. “We get to actually see each other get better through the years, which I think is going to be interesting to see how people change in the next year or so.”
Baker will look to sophomore duo Lucas Mach and Jack McGarry as his leaders. Mach, Baker said, will be his No. 1.
Although some on the team are just picking up a racket for the first time, Mach has been playing for a good while now. The biggest difference, however, is now there is a team element involved.
“For most of my life, I’ve been playing tennis by myself — trying to win for myself — for my parents, and not as a team,” Mach said. “So when I joined the tennis team, you’re not playing for yourself — you’re playing for everyone else, and you don’t want to let anyone else down. It’s a lot more fun and you have everyone supporting you.”
“We had three freshmen starting, and then they went to the new school. It’s almost like we are rebuilding the program again, kind of from scratch a little bit."
— Scott Baker
Most folks would think that as the de facto leaders of a team filled with players who are their grade and lower, there would be added stress. That’s not the case.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a lot of stress, but there is definitely some pressure knowing that there are more eyes on you than if you were playing lower positions or you didn’t have the title that you did,” McGarry said.
On the tennis court the Warriors will help one another go through the growing pains rebuilding, but the support won’t stop there.
Every day after school, the team meets in a study-hall session where they work on homework and help one another better learn their subjects.
That hour or two of help means a lot to each individual, including freshman Christian Rosa — whose math grades have improved alongside his tennis game.
“When you join this (team), it’s not a sport, it’s a family,” Rosa said. “You’re doing something you love with people who care, and you know that if you need anything you can go to them.”