Just weeks into his first season as Manhattan’s head boys’ tennis coach, Tony Ingram still is acquainting himself with the roster.
The talent is obvious: The Indians, led by state title contender Dan Harkin, will begin the season ranked third in Class 6A. But Ingram cares more about how they’ll look on concrete then paper.
After the coronavirus wiped away last season, the state’s tennis landscape is cloudier than ever. With that in mind, Ingram is eager to see how his team performs when it begins the season; MHS had its opener Tuesday morning, competing in the Washburn Rural Invitational.
“I’m anxiously awaiting the first matches,” Ingram said. “Once you get to matches, there’s an emotional part that is tacked on to it — how they handle adversity, how they handle success. Those are things that become a full part of a tennis player’s repertoire, not just the skill set.”
Ingram, who also has coached Manhattan girls’ tennis team since 2016, replaced Brandon Starkey as the boys’ coach last May. Ingram was named the KCTA 6A girls’ tennis coach of the year in 2019.
Last week, Ingram praised Starkey for “setting a really good foundation” at Manhattan.
The Indians return 20 players from the 2019 team that finished fifth at state.
That includes Harkin, a senior who finished third in the state singles tournament two years ago. After winning state titles in cross country and track the last few years, he’s motivated to add the state tennis trophy to his mantle, too.
“Dan’s so consistent,” Ingram said. “He is constantly working on his game, and his skill set is very high. He is definitely going to be one of the top players in the state.”
Ingram could tell Harkin belonged on the state stage as a sophomore. Two years later, Harkin’s game has matured even further. He can dissect opponents’ strategies and hit the shot that will force them to adjust. Ingram posits that Harkin won’t see many players who can match his combination of understanding and technique until the postseason.
His teammates, on the other hand, see it every day. And Ingram believes Harkin’s presence makes a difference for the rest of the roster.
“His consistency can help other players on the team,” Ingram said. “It really helps bring other players along and improve their own consistency. He’s like having another coach. It helps a ton.”
Ingram sees similar traits in Jon Grove, a senior who will play second singles for the Indians. Like Harkin, Grove possesses a strong forehand and backhand, both of which serve him well during the lengthier rallies that his matches tend to yield.
That style could prove advantageous, particularly early in the season. Ingram suspects that with last season being canceled, many teams will lack fitness to start 2021. The Indians are no exception.
“Conditioning wise, we’re still a ways out,” Ingram said. “With two weeks until we play, I’m not trying to run off anybody. But at the same time, I try to help them understand that even (during) our drills, those are opportunities to get conditioned for those short spurts of tennis.”
Building endurance requires time, as does understanding a new roster. Ingram is confident Harkin and Grove will be his top two players, and he likes the doubles chemistry between Luke Craft and Kelton Poole. But the rest of his starting lineup remains uncertain. Ingram has seven players in starting contention; he’s just not sure of the order.
The same goes for the Indians’ place in the state’s hierarchy. Ingram believes Washburn Rural, Seaman and Hayden will be strong in the Centennial League, but he can’t be sure without seeing them. He’s even less certain about non-conference opponents.
That’s why Ingram is so antsy for Manhattan’s opener. Once he sees the competition and how the Indians react to it, he can identify where the Indians need to improve between now and May.
“The more we start to see, I’ll start to see other teams that will give me an idea of where we are,” Ingram said. “All the matches leading up to league and regionals are just an opportunity to prepare for those league and regional and even state (matches).”