By Kyle LoJacono
Two years ago the Land O’ Lakes boys tennis team reached the state tournament for the first time in program history on the strength of a perfect record through regionals.
All but one of the top five graduated from that squad, but the resilient Gators recovered enough to finish as a district runner-up last year. The story is similar this season, where Land O’ Lakes brings back only three athletes, but has raced out to a 6-1 start with the only loss to nondistrict Nature Coast 4-3.
“They continue to surprise me,” said second-year Gators coach Jasalyn Gerazounis. “Last year when I became the coach I didn’t think I was going to be working with much from what other people said, and we ended up taking a doubles team to states and got out of districts.”
One of the three returners is sophomore Erik Thielbar, who is not surprised by the team’s winning ways.
“We’re the same as always,” Thielbar said. “We’re always going to be good. We have good freshmen coming in every year and coach gets us ready.”
Also back is Land O’ Lakes No. 1 Colin Roller, a senior, and sophomore Tyler Sanders, who has risen from the No. 5 spot last year to the 3.
Roller has an intense practice and playing schedule to prepare for college tennis, so he is unable to play in all of the Gators’ matches. The absence of their ace forces David Dollbaum, the No. 2, and Sanders to play the opponent’s top two players regularly.
“I feel like we’re better this year; like we’re a stronger team overall,” Sanders said. “We’re playing the best players on the other team and still winning without Colin a lot of the time. It gives us a of confidence.”
And when Roller is available it’s a lethal prospect for the opposition. The 6-foot-4 Division I prospect has a 47-1 singles record in the regular season going back to his freshman year with the Gators.
Roller plays doubles with Dollbaum, giving the freshman ample opportunity to pick up elements of his game.
“He’s very consistent and very quick,” Dollbaum said. “Even when he’s not ready for it he’s still very quick on the ball. … There’s a little pressure to just keep up with him.”
Gerazounis sees great possibilities with the duo.
“They’re working very well together as a doubles team,” Gerazounis said. “I’m looking for them to do very well at districts and I think they can do great at states.”
Land O’ Lakes is rounding into form as the Class 3A-District 6 tournament approaches thanks to the younger players and coach gaining experience with high school tennis.
Gerazounis is no newcomer to the game as she played and coached at Carlow University in Pittsburg, but last year was her first time leading a high school program.
“I think she’s feeling more comfortable this year,” Roller said. “Her first year last year went well, but it feels like it’s going even better this year.”
Gerazounis brings a no-nonsense attitude to practices, which start with 30 minutes of conditioning and agility drills before the Gators pick up a racket.
“Footwork is everything with this sport,” Gerazounis said. “If you don’t have that you’re not going to beat anyone.”
The results are evident in the young squad’s ability to play with any team. That, plus moving up in classification from 2A gives Land O’ Lakes a shot of returning to states.
“This year I feel like if we win districts we’ll have a good chance because the other teams in our region changed,” Gerazounis said. “A lot of the teams last year in our region were private schools where they focus on tennis. Most of these kids play other sports, so tennis isn’t their main focus. I think if I can mold them these next couple years we can get back to states regularly.”
The Gators played Springstead on March 5, but results were not available by press time. They travel to Hudson on Tuesday, March 6 at 4 p.m. before hosting Fivay on Thursday, March 8 at 3:15 p.m.
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