This will be a transition year for a Grain Valley girls tennis team that has won 10 consecutive Missouri River Valley Conference West championships.
The Eagles will play in the Suburban Small Seven for the first time ever, joining Smithville, Raytown South, Winnetonka, Grandview, Platte County and Kearney.
And that might not even be the biggest change for Grain Valley.
Longtime head coach Randy Draper, who was the only coach in program history, stepped down from the position after retiring as a teacher. He’s been a staple of Eagles sports for many years, and it’s hard to mention Grain Valley athletics without talking about Draper.
He was a coach with which the players had a strong relationship.
That presented a challenge to new head coach Blake Thorne, who is taking over as a tennis head coach for the first time after coming from Savannah High School.
“There is definitely so much pressure and some big shoes to fill with Coach Draper, but the nice thing is he really laid a good path for me to follow and he’s built a strong program,” Thorne said. “I could tell during the first day I was here that the girls were sad that Coach Draper wasn’t here. But we are forming some relationships and we’re getting things together now.
“I’ve been playing tennis for a while and this is something I wanted to do. That’s part of the reason I applied here.”
So far, Thorne has fit in well despite a few differences in coaching styles from Draper.
“He’s super nice and works with us really well,” senior Kendra Sibert said. “He really teaches us the basic techniques. He’s more of a laid back and teach you what it is kind of coach. Coach Draper was more hands on and played with us.”
Thorne will have a solid foundation to work with as three of Grain Valley’s top six players return from a strong 2017 squad. On Wednesday, the Eagles started challenge matches to determine the lineup. Thorne anticipates that Sibert will take the No. 1 singles spot, but the returning Ryan Deaton will challenge her for that spot tomorrow. The loser of that match will take the No. 2 spot.
Alyssa Owens is the Eagles’ other returning player and could take the No. 3 or 4 spot in the singles lineup.
“They have looked pretty good so far,” Thorne said of his three returners. “They look sharp with their strokes. I think they will be competitive with anyone around.”
Added Sibert: “Alyssa has really improved this summer, as has Ryan. We all played in Summer Slam tournaments, We’re trying to push to make up for our loses (to graduation from last season).”
Players competing for the final three spots include Maddie Shields, Bailey McCay, Mackensie Wagner and Chelsea Gorden.
“It looks like we have some good depth at (Nos.) 4, 5, 6,” Thorne said. “They’re still hitting a good ball and are staying consistent. We’re not going to have a huge drop-off at 1 and 2 like some schools.”
Even in his first year, Thorne has set some high goals for his squad.
“I definitely want to get players to state whether it’s as a team, individually or in doubles,” he said. “We want some girls to get into postseason play.”
Another goal is to extend a 10-year conference championship streak.
“I am a little nervous because we aren’t sure how they play,’ Shields said of the Small Seven Conference. “With the other conference we kind of knew. It’s going to be a whole new experience.
“But that’s one of our biggest goals, to win conference again.”