NORTH CANTON As they close in on a Federal League boys tennis title, the Hoover Vikings are proving that a lack of experience doesn’t have to sink a team’s championship dreams.
Entering the year, the Vikings had a four-person senior class that may have looked to those on the outside like the sort of large veteran group a successful team needs, but veteran coach Ryan Shaffer knew the picture was a bit different than it appeared.
“The team, despite having four seniors, started the year extremely inexperienced as far as varsity play,” Shaffer said. “We have only two full-time starters back from last year.”
Those goals, coupled with rival Jackson’s recent dominance of the league, seemed to suggest an uphill climb for Hoover this spring. Yet as the season wears on and nears its closing stretch, it’s the Vikings who are locked into the top spot in the standings, having vanquished the Polar Bears 3-2 in a closely contested match on April 18.
It was the latest step forward for a squad that has lost just once this season, a 4-1 defeat to parochial power St. Ignatius after winning five straight matches to begin the campaign, and clinched the league title outright with a win over Lake on April 25.
According to Shaffer, the progress is the direct result of what transpired in the weeks and months that led up to the season.
“The key to our success is the amount of time and effort they (the players) put in to the offseason,” the veteran coach said. “Our goals are primarily performance-based. We train extremely hard, the expectations every day in practice are exceedingly high and we go out and try to train as hard as we can.”
The season has also featured a milestone for Shaffer, who recorded his 800th career win earlier this month in a match against Canton McKinley. It was a 5-0 triumph for Hoover and a memorable one for its head coach, whose coaching career began a long way from the tennis courts in a smaller, more rural school district.
“I’ve been coaching for about 35 years and started out as a football, basketball at baseball coach at Malvern,” Shaffer said. “Then I was the tennis pro at Atwood Resort when it was still kind of a booming place and I went from those other sports to tennis. In the late ‘80s, I was the tennis coach at Malone University and then at St. Thomas Aquinas before I came to Hoover.”
His run with the Vikings has seen the league dominated by the Vikings initially, then by Jackson over the past few seasons as a group led by 2016 state champion Danny Thomas propelled the Polar Bears to the top of the league.
Entering this season, senior Andrew Triner was locked in as the number one singles player for Hoover, but there were several inexperienced players behind him - at least in terms of varsity experience. One of them, sophomore Matt Warburton, has settled in as the team’s second singles player and has proven that he has the talent to succeed against older, more experienced players.
“Having success has made them believe in themselves,” Shaffer said of his younger players.
Continuing that success in the last few matches of the regular season and on into the OHSAA postseason is the next task to tackle for Hoover. The sectional tournament will be split between the Hall of Fame facility and Harvard courts, both of which are extremely familiar venues for the Vikings.
The Hall of Fame courts are their home courts during the season, so having a chance to play in a place they know well should allow for a high comfort level no matter who the opponent may be. As for Shaffer, who doesn’t want to spend much time dwelling on the individual milestone he reached, the 800 wins are at least an indication of the quality of the people he’s worked with over the years/
“I have been very fortunate over the years to have players who were living to buy into the process that we try to teach,” Shaffer said. “We’ve also been fortunate to have kids that were not selfish that even though tennis is an individual sort and they’ve committed to team success.”
Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB