---- — By Brian Holtzapple
For The Daily Item
In tennis, seven players -- three in singles and four in doubles -- are needed to put a full team on the court.
And while most coaches have few problems putting together a competitive singles lineup, finding the right personnel to play doubles has usually been a different story.
That likely won't be the case for several teams this year, as the 2013 Heartland Athletic Conference girls tennis season got underway Monday afternoon.
Even though Class AAA Williamsport is once again considered to be the strong favorite to claim the Division I crown this year, several teams are expected to be nipping at the Millionaires' heels by the time the season is over.
Milton is one of them. The Black Panthers, who are under the tutelage of Aaron Slusser for perhaps the final time, have five girls fighting it out for the top three singles spots.
Three 2012 Daily Item All-Stars -- Leah Tillinghast, Hunter Metzger, Alaina Houtz -- will take the court for Milton this season. Two others -- Julia Spear and Jenna Bowersox -- were second-team selections on The Daily Item team.
"This year we have a good group of returning players with varsity experience....and some very athletic newcomers," said Slusser, who is expected to step away from the program after the fall. "I expect us to be competitive in all of our matches. It definitely hurts when you lose your top two singles players from the previous season (Megan Rudloff and Dana Kyle), but the girls are ready to step up and fill those positions.
"Leah is our top returning player (she played 3rd singles last year), and she will take over the No. 1 position," added Slusser.
At Selinsgrove, coach Duke Fravel has a big team with a total of 26 players on the roster, with senior Sara Moyer manning the No. 1 singles spot. Moyer is also a returning Daily Item First Team All-Star.
And while his three singles spots are filled, the coach will have a slew of options when it comes time to finding the right matchups for doubles.
"I have a big team, and I have a lot of new players. I probably have 10 that are capable of playing varsity doubles," said Fravel. "I've had a couple of soccer players that changed over and a field hockey player that has come over (to join the tennis team). I have a real good feeling about these players. Look for some new faces doing new things.
"I was concerned because we lost four seniors out of our top seven, but I'm not anymore. I'm confident we'll be a good team," Fravel said.
Up the Susquehanna River at Danville, coach Mary Jo Baum brings back four starters to a team that advanced to the quarterfinals of last year's District 4 team tournament. Two of those starters are sophomores Linda Yang and Alika Lopatka, a first-team doubles team on last year's All-Daily Item squad.
Baum is confident with her singles players, crediting that unit as one of her team's strengths, but the doubles teams do give her some concern.
"It is early, but my team needs consistency during play. My doubles will need more time to practice together and develop balance and rhythm," said the Danville coach. "I'm hopeful that our team has a chance to have a winning season."
Even down at Shikellamy, veteran coach Mindy Hoffman has a bunch of experience back in the form of seniors Christy Eroh, Tracy Knorr, Kippy Palko and Christa Beveridge.
"I have a lot of four-year players back and I'm hoping this year they'll have a lot of experience. I'm happy with some of the new players and it's nice I have a freshman in the lineup," said Hoffman. "I'm just hoping we'll have a little more depth this year to help us out through singles and doubles.
"I just want us to play. We want to work on our steady game and patience, work for good shots and try to cut back on unnecessary unforced errors and have the girls be a little bit more aggressive," added the Braves coach. "We're just going to go at it ... and play hard to the end."
and see what happens."