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Lebanon County Tennis Preview: A season of change

No matter the sport, you can count on each new season bringing with it a good deal of change.

But this season for Lebanon County girls tennis teams, the winds of change aren't just blowing, they're gusting.

Consider this: The top four singles players from last season - Northern Lebanon exchange student Maja Andersson, Elco's Sydney Nye, Cedar Crest's Greta Strunk and Annville-Cleona's Alicia Hitz - have all graduated, making the battle for this year's county singles title a wide-open one to say the least.

In addition, one county program has disappeared entirely, as Northern Lebanon was forced to forfeit its season after no players opted to come out for the team. That would be a disheartening development under any scenario, but it is particularly so this year given the Andersson-led success NL enjoyed a season ago. Often a struggling program over the years, the Vikings posted a respectable 6-7 overall record and a 4-7 L-L Section Two mark and saw their profile raised as Andersson captured the county and L-L AA singles titles, finished as the district runner-up in AA and advanced all the way to the state tournament.

There was also a change in the coaching ranks, with Liz Safstrom taking over for Pete Nguyen at Annville-Cleona as A-C transitions from a veteran squad that went 9-5 led by Hitz last season to one with an almost entirely new starting lineup this time around.

For all those reasons and more, it should be an interesting fall for local teams, particularly when they go head-to-head at the Lebanon County Tournament on Saturday, Sept. 10 at Cedar Crest.

The host Falcons figure to be a good bet to retain the team title, but could face a challenge from, among others, Elco, which boasts a roster of 21 players, including five key returners.

As for the county singles crown, look for Cedar Crest's Keeley Hartman, the Flight Twio champ last season, Elco's Kelsey Stubblebine and Palmyra's Alli Lynn to emerge as the top contenders.

In terms of postseason hopes, that's rather difficult to gauge at this point, but with 12 teams qualifying for districts in AAA and eight making the cut in AA, Cedar Crest (AAA) and Elco (AA) each figure to have a puncher's chance of extending their time together beyond the regular season.

For a closer look at what this season may hold for the Lebanon County girls tennis teams check out the capsule previews that follow:

Liz Safstrom, 1st year
Last year's record: 9-5 overall, 6-5 in Section Two
Key players lost: Alicia Hitz, Emma Lerchen,  Katia Luu, April Barley, Addie Heeter
Top returning players: Katie Nyce (Sr.), Jordan Bowman (Sr.), Angel Wolfe (Sr.), Morgan Long (Sr.)
Promising newcomers:  Olivia Mowery (Sr.), Abby Kline (Soph.), Sasha Bretous (Soph.), Alyssia Rivera (Soph.)
Outlook: New head coach Safstrom inherits a team that was lost virtually its entire starting lineup to graduation, so it will be a transition year, to say the least.
"We are a very young and inexperienced varsity team having lost all the starting singles players and top two doubles team to graduation," Safstrom said. "For most of the players, this season will be their first opportunity to play varsity.  The challenge will be to get them to transition from exhibition matches to match play.  We will be facing tough teams with more experience so one of the things I have them focusing on is their own player growth.  Their growth  is measured in small increments such as being able to do something today that you couldn’t do yesterday not necessarily wins and losses.  Some people say “winning is everything” perhaps that is true but how does one get there?  It’s by working on all the little things so that has been our main focus is to master the fundamentals, gain experience, learn the game, and the rest will happen."

Cedar Crest
Gila Hodge, 14th year
Last year's record: 10-3 overall, 8-3 in Section One of the Lancaster-Lebanon League
Key players lost: Greta Strunk
Top returning players: Keeley Hartman (Sr.), Tatyana Golub (Sr.), Abbey Castor (Sr.), Claire Aitken (Jr.), Serena Cheng (Soph.)
Promising newcomers: The Falcons have six freshmen joining the team, which will bode well for the future and also up this season's roster size
​Outlook: Cedar Crest said goodbye to a steady, solid No. 1 player in Strunk, but the rest of this year's squad returns intact. Add to that the influx of freshmen and the Falcons look like the team to beat in the county again and perhaps one that could knock heads in the upper echelon of always powerful Section One.
"The 2016 team continues to build on a legacy of strong tennis," Hodge said. "While the loss of last year’s only senior, Greta Strunk, will be felt by the returning starters, they are all eager to meet the challenges of the new season. Seniors Keeley Hartman, Tatyana Golub, and Abbey Castor, junior Clare Aitken and  sophomore Serena Cheng were all top league contenders and are preparing to better last year’s record. Goals for 2016 will include doing well at the Lebanon County Tournament, a strong (district) power ranking, and to challenge the Lancaster powerhouse schools - Manheim Township and Hempfield."

 Zach Cook, 8th year
Last year's record: 6-8 overall, 5-6 in Section Two
Key players lost: Sydney Nye, Anna Enck
Top returning players: Kelsey Stubblebine (Sr.), Jen Kinsey (Sr.), Steph Palashnyuk (Sr.), Liz Palashnyuk (Sr.), Emilie Showers (Jr), Madison Groy (Jr.),
Promising newcomers:Allie Header (Soph), Haille Kern (Jr.), Emily Ficco (Jr.), Alana Nash (Soph.)
​Outlook: The loss of No. 1 player Nye will be tough to overcome, as will the graduation of No. 3 singles player Enck, but the Raiders will look to compensate for those departures with a large roster of 21 players, although most are inexperienced.
 "After losing the No.1 and No. 3 to graduation, seniors Stubblebine and Kinsey will have big shoes to fill at the top of the roster," Cool said. "Elco has a large number of new players this year, with 15 new players for a total of 21 on the team.  As always, Elco is looking to be competitive in Section 2 and have fun while doing it."  

Karen Haitos, 6th year
Last year's record: 2-11 overall, 0-10 in Section One
Key players lost:  Amelia Kuhn, Lydines Haddock 
Top returning players: Katie Bartal (Sr.), Laura Gilbert (Sr.) and Kelly Cooper (Sr.)
Promising newcomers: Kara Hoffman (Jr),  Jackelyn Checo (Sr), Eve Gonzalez (So), Alexis Papson (Jr)
​Outlook: The Cedars have some key losses to deal with and are once again a bit in over their head against top-tier Section One competition, but there is some good news, too, specifically in terms of attitude and team spirit. That could add to at least a slight increase in success in the win-loss column.
 "We had a significant turnover from last season, although I am extremely pleased with the players that came out to play this year," Haitos said. "They all have a great work ethic, attitude and affinity toward one another.  They work well together and are supportive of each other’s successes and improvements.  I believe we will better last year’s record by a game or two.  We always struggle with the Section 1 teams as a whole, but we will get some wins from individual players.  I am looking forward to the season for several reasons – the most significant of which is the character of the girls on the team."

 Matt Opilo, 11th year
Last year's record: 6-8 overall, 3-4 in Mid-Penn Keystone Division
Key players lost: Tia Offner, Amber Kuligowski, Miranda Pells, Rachael Speck, Julia Walker
Top returning players: Alli Lynn (Jr.), Maddie Beidler (Sr.)
Promising newcomers: The Cougars have added a few sophomores to the lineup to make up for some significant graduation losses.
​Outlook: Palmyra returns No. 1 player Lynn and and an experienced competitor in Beidler, but has its work cut out for it after losing five seniors from last year's lineup.
"We have experience at No. 1 and 2," Opilo said of Lynn and Beidler. "After that, we have players who will have to adjust quickly to a much higher level of play."