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SJO tennis program overflowing with players and positive energy

St. Joseph-Ogden head coach Kevin Martlage talks to players during their first day of practice for the 2023-24 season. The Spartans' ranks have swollen to 29 players as the program enters its fourth competitive season.
Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks

URBANA - On Monday this, the St. Joseph-Ogden girls' tennis team took up three courts at Atkins Tennis Center for their first official practice of the 2023-24 season. The program continues to grow in popularity as a fall sport. SJO welcomes 11 newcomers to the sport, filling their roster of 29 to the brim.

"We have 18 returning players this year. A lot of them took lessons over the summer and during the off-season," said head coach Kevin Martlage, who is entering his fourth season. "I'm looking forward to getting out there and seeing what we are capable of doing."

This year's squad has eight seniors. Led by three-year veteran Lauren Lannert, the class of 2024 includes Maya Chahine, Grace Getty, Brianna Grant, Addison Ross, Addison Seggebruch, Emma Thurman, and Ellie Ward. Chahine and Ward are first-year players, while the rest of the class has seen two years of action for the Spartans.

Addison Saggebruch returns to the SJO tennis program
Senior Addison Saggebruch concentrates on a ball drill during opening day practice at Atkins Tennis Center on Monday. Last year's sectional qualifier hopes make another run toward competing at the IHSA state tournament in October. Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks

The juniors represent the largest contingent of players, with ten student-athletes. Audrey Benoit, Sara Kearney, Audra Marshke, Haley Rudolph, and Alexis Wirth enter their first tennis season under Martlage. The other five players returning for their second season include Madison Clampitt, Ella Dietiker, Olivia Getty, Makennah Hamilton, and Sonia Patel.

Martlage, overflowing with enthusiasm and an abundance of positive energy, is looking forward to the upcoming season.

"I'm really excited about the team," he said on Monday while his players jogged laps around three courts at Atkin's Tennis Center for their warmup. "I just want to go out there and teach these girls the game of tennis and also be very competitive in the tough division we are in here in central Illinois."

The Spartans have five home matches, the first on tap on August 17 at Atkins against Maroa-Forsyth. Then there are nine road matches lined up to played around central Illinois. Fans unable to catch a home match can watch the team play against local opponents on August 19 at the Charger Invitational (Atkins/Blair Park), on August 29 against Urbana, and on October 12 against Mahomet-Seymour (Illini Grove Tennis Courts).

Martlage said he enjoys coaching the girls' team because of the abundance of raw enthusiasm from the players while watching their appreciation and skill in the sport mature.

"This was never a sport [at SJO] before Covid," he explained. He recounted how a few students approached him to start the program during the pandemic. "Ten girls were like, 'Hey, want to play tennis because the IHSA says you can play tennis and nothing else.'"

Now, starting the program's fourth season, participation in the newest sport at St. Joseph-Ogden has tripled.

"The thing I like the most is the girls have the opportunity to learn a sport they probably would have never had the opportunity to learn, represent their school, and each other."

Top left: Lily Rice and teammate Makennah Hamilton watch teamate execute a drill while waiting for their turn. The duo were sectional qualifiers last fall and look to make a repeat appearance in a bid to advance to the state tournament. Center: Addi Ross uses her racquet to bounce the ball during a team drill. Top right: Ella Dietiker focuses on bouncing the ball on the racquet during a team warm-up drill. Below: Totally in the zone, Caroline Aiden puts the ball back over the net with a backhand shot during the team's 3-on-3 hitting drill on Monday.

Photos: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks

St. Joseph-Ogden's top returning players include Saggebruch and sophomore Lily Rice, who won their opening match at sectionals in the previous season. Double partners and sectional qualifiers Ross and Hamilton also return to this year's lineup.

Martlage is excited to see his top four players grow this season.

"They will be coming back strong," he said. "There are a handful of others I'm excited about. There are even some players today I haven't seen since last season, and I am pretty impressed with. I asked if they had been taking lessons, and they said, 'Yes, Coach!'"

The underclass has seven sophomores returning from 2022. Caroline Aden, Abby Getty, Claire Hartman, Samantha Kelso, Grace Preston, Ainsley Rhoton, and Lily Rice look to build on their success last season and help guide new classmates Sophia Vliet and Shelby Campbell, who join the team for their first season.

The roster is complete with three freshman, which includes Madison Farber, Audri Helfrich, and Isabella Santiago, who joined the team this year.