Land O’ Lakes makes first state tournament trip
By Kyle LoJacono
The Land O’ Lakes High boys’ tennis team completed a perfect regular season (12-0), won the Class 2A, District 6 championship and has reached its first appearance in the state tournament.
“We set goals for ourselves before this season,” said Gators’ No. 1 player Colin Roller. “We wanted to have a perfect regular season, a district title and go deep into the playoffs.”
Roller, sophomore, was also the No. 1 player on the 2009 Land O’ Lakes team that finished 11-1, but missed the regional tournament. Roller and his doubles partner, Chris Story, are also competing as a team at states, which started April 26. Results from the state tournament were not available at press time.
“When we lost to Wiregrass Ranch (High) last year I told the rest of the team that I hate to lose and we need to do whatever we can to have a perfect regular season the next year,” Roller said. “It feels so good to have a perfect season.”
The Gators were projected to have another strong year in 2010, but a coaching change at the start of the season threatened to derail Land O’ Lakes.
“We lost our coach (Shawn McGee) before the season and it was tough,” said Land O’ Lakes No. 5 player Henry Jaime. “He took a full-time job at Saddlebrook, but coach (Shannon Aitken) and the other coaches have done a great job…It’s been a great season.”
Aitken graduated from Land O’ Lakes, but never played tennis. She was a member of the Gators girls soccer team that won a state title in 2003. The first-year coach has brought her winning mentality to the team.
“She put us through a lot of conditioning drills and it was pretty tough,” Jaime said. “We did a lot of running last year, but we did even more this year because of her background in soccer. She knows what it takes to win that’s for sure.”
Aitken officially took over for the Gators in the third match of the season. Prior to that she was coaching the Pine View Middle girls soccer team.
“The school approached me about the opening and I told them I’d do what I could to help,” Aitken said.
Several of the parents, including Felicia and Bob Roller, stepped in and helped the first-year coach transition to tennis. That mixed with a highly rated team allowed the Gators to adjust quickly.
“I got very lucky getting a team that was as athletically talented as this one,” Aitken said. “A lot of the time I don’t have to do anything but support them…Sometimes I just have to tell them to stop messing around in a match. Guys like these can almost coach themselves, so I just step in when needed during games.”
Aitken has not had to worry much about Roller this season. Last year he was undefeated individually before being eliminated in the first round of the state tournament. He was once again perfect through the regular season and districts this season.
“The whole team came in ready to win every match this year,” Roller said. “Tim Falcon came through big for us many times. Henry played his best match when we needed it against Wesley Chapel. Chris (Story) put in a lot of work over the summer and got so much better and it’s really shown all year.”
In that match against Wesley Chapel, Jaime started down 0-3 and fought back to win 8-5 in an eight game pro set. The Gators and Wildcats finished tied at the 2A-6 tournament, which forced a winner-take-all match the following day for the second straight year. Both seasons it was Land O’ Lakes that came out on top.
“It was really hard to come back and win the match,” Jaime said immediately after the comeback victory April 16. “Two days ago I had really bad cramping in my leg in a long match and I’m still feeling it. I just had to focus on each game and each point and not worry about how bad my leg hurt.”
Regardless of how the Gators do in the state tournament, Land O’ Lakes has still had one of the most successful years in program history. Next year the Gators will lose four of their top five players, but that does not seem to deter Aitken from sticking with the team.
“I’d like to stay with them,” Aitken said. “If the school wants me to I’ll be back next year. I want to be a (physical education) teacher and I can’t imagine a better place to do that then my old school.”
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