Despite third coach in four years, Mavs tennis team has high hopes for postseason

by Aaron Garcia

Fueled by first-year coach Jon Golden (sitting), the Marvin Ridge tennis team, has has an 11-2 record. Team members include (from left) Cullen Kelleher, Michael Ruocco, Brett Ward, Bobby Hatala, Woody Watson and Joey Hatala. Aaron Garcia/UCW photo

By all accounts, this was to be the year.

For the past three seasons, the Marvin Ridge boys tennis team had been building a solid reputation as a strong, up-and-coming program. It had been playoff tested with some lofty accolades to its credit, including a state doubles title. Now, with four seniors in the rotation, 2012 was slated to be special.

“We realized coming into this year that this is the culmination of all of our efforts,” said senior Brett Ward, who fills the second spot in the lineup.

And so far, the Mavs have pretty much lived up to their billing.

With an 11-2 overall record and 6-0 mark in the Southern Carolina 3A/4A conference, the Mavs are barreling toward earning the top seed in the league for the Class 3A dual-team playoffs.

Aside from their pair of losses – to Charlotte Ardrey Kell (by a score of 7-2) and Charlotte Country Day (a 6-3 defeat) – the Mavs have won each of their matches, and they’ve shut out every opponent, with the exception of Weddington, which they beat, 8-1.

While the on-court play has certainly been a huge factor in the Mavs’ success, their goals could’ve easily been derailed before the season even got off the ground.

Jon Golden coached the Lake Norman High School tennis team from 2002 to 2007 before leading Charlotte’s Mallard Creek High in 2008. The following year, he joined Marvin Ridge’s faculty as an English teacher while local tennis instructor Wade Liles led the Maverick program until 2011, when another local pro, Vijay Shankar, took over.

So when the school began looking for an in-house coach for the program before this season, Golden was a logical choice.

But the fact remained: Golden was the program’s third coach in four years. But he said that obstacle was mitigated a bit since he had taught a few of the players in class.

“It’s a lot easier for the coach to come in when there’s already a relationship established in the classroom,” said Golden.

But in this case, the coach’s comfort level came second to the players’, especially since they had been through the same drill before. But Joey Hatala, the team’s top starter and Union County Weekly’s reigning Boys Tennis Player of the Year, said the transition was cushioned by Golden’s outlook when he took the position.

“Coach Golden was up to the task,” said Hatala, who has an 11-2 singles record as the team’s No. 1. “He came in Day 1 saying we were going to win a state championship this year. That’s the goal.

“(Golden) actually improved our mind-sets instead of just (telling us to) go out there and do our best. He gave us a real goal this year.”

Ward added that going through the process of adapting to new coaches in the past made this year an easy adjustment.

“For us, we were pretty open-minded because we had dealt with it in the past, as far as having a different coach,” said Ward, who is 10-2 on the season. “We came into this new season ready to have a new point of view because every coach has their own thing that they bring to the table.

“Having that third perspective, if nothing else, is helping us grow as players because we have different input from each year. It’s been like a stepping stone.”

Ward and Hatala’s responses to Golden’s introduction highlight another attribute that should serve the team well down the stretch: They are unusually positive.

“I feel lucky with the fact that they are such a great group of kids,” said Golden. “I’ve been around really talented kids you wouldn’t want to share the court with, where you would’ve been embarrassed to coach them or be associated with.”

While displaying a certain amount of likeability doesn’t score points in a match, it has helped freshman Woody Watson (No. 4 with a 12-0 singles record) and junior Bobby Hatala (No. 5 and 9-3) ease into their roles as starters.

“They’re not an intimidating group of guys – I like them,” said Watson. “It helped me be able to play my game as well as I can and to go out there and not feel like if I mess up, they’ll be looking at me in a bad way. As long as we come out with a win, they’re good.”

The other two senior starters, Cullen Kelleher and Mike Ruocco, have had stellar seasons as well, with records of 8-2 and 11-1, respectively.

The Mavs travel to Weddington on Monday, April 23 before facing Fort Mill Nations Ford on Tuesday, April 24, which will be their final warmup before postseason play begins with the conference tournament on Thursday, April 26.

Golden thinks this year’s experience, as well as past success, could steer the Mavs to their ultimate goal: a Class 3A state title.

“They know what it’s like to win,” said Golden. “Now, they just have to put it all together.”

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