By Kyle LoJacono
Wiregrass Ranch has been, by any measure, the most consistent boys tennis program in Pasco County since the school’s opening in 2006.
The Bulls (9-0) have never had a losing season, have captured district titles the last three years and have complied a 66-1 Sunshine Athletic Conference record the last five plus seasons.
The winning tradition has been established at Wiregrass Ranch, but the goals, ambitions and expectations are set even higher this year.
A state championship, the most sought after prize for any high school program, is a real possibility.
“Getting to the state tournament is going to be tough, but if we get there, and it matters with what draws you have, but if we get to the state tournament there’s no reason we shouldn’t take a run at a state title,” said Bulls coach Dave Wilson.
The excitement isn’t just centered around Wiregrass Ranch’s top player Courage Okungbowa, the two-time reigning The Laker/Lutz News Boys Tennis Player of the Year, or even the front half of the Bulls’ lineup.
“Our team here is strong one through six,” said Courage, a senior. “With that it takes a lot of pressure off the higher players, because we know the guys at four through six or seven can still play, and we can have good results even when our top players aren’t at our best.”
Wiregrass Ranch lost Jaime Feliciano to graduation and Koustubh Ramesh to an ankle injury, who played No. 4 and 2 last year, but gets an infusion of young talent in freshmen Agustin Moreno and Niels van Dam.
“Koustubh is back, but he has an ankle injury and probably wouldn’t have been in our top five if he was healthy, and he was our No. 2 last year,” Wilson said. “That shows some of the growth. We lost Jaime, who was a very consistent player, but these players are really talented and are younger.”
Courage is the only senior on a squad that includes two freshmen and two sophomores in the top five. Wilson said that does present a different set of challenges.
“The only thing that worries me is we’re a very young team, so if you get to a state tournament you worry about that youth, but these guys all play really high-level tennis,” Wilson said. “They’ve been in USTAs and are tournament-ready players.”
The Bulls have gotten off to their normal start, going 9-0, all by 7-0 margins, while dropping no more than two games at any position. The seventh-year program has become accustomed to that level of domination in the regular season but had a rude wakeup call last year in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs.
Wiregrass Ranch dropped its home postseason match 4-2 to Wharton, a district runner-up to Plant. Wilson said the Wildcats and the Panthers are major hurdles for his squad.
“Wharton has won three states titles and Plant has been very good, so we could be as dominate as we’ve been in the county, but when you get to regional you have those two big dogs,” Wilson said. “I think that pushed the guys who are back, and then the freshmen that came in have taken us to another level. We know we’re better than we were last year, but now they know it doesn’t matter if you win all these matches in the regular season if you get knocked out.”
Sophomore Foresight Okungbowa, Courage’s brother, watched as an eighth-grader while the 2011 squad became the first in program history to make the state tournament.
“I was so excited to play for the high school team last year,” Foresight said. “I wanted to go to states, and it was kind of disappointing that we missed it. We all want to make up for that.”
The clinching point was between Wharton’s Marcel Betancourt and Alejandro Feliciano, Jaime’s brother, in a near three-hour contest that went the Wildcats way 7-5, 6-7 (6-8), 7-5.
“It made me mad because I lost,” said Alejandro, a sophomore. “It was tough to lose that and have the team not go to states. It made me want to work harder and play better. … I’ve been working to be more consistent and more calm in the head.”
Wilson stepped up their regular season by adding teams like Palm Harbor, Springstead and Nature Coast and kept Jesuit on the schedule. The Bulls won at Palm Harbor 7-0 and travel to Springstead March 11, Nature Coast March 12 and Jesuit March 18.
Alejandro said he hopes the tougher schedule will prepare them for a title run.
“We talk about how this is our chance to win state,” Alejandro said. “The team is probably not going to get much better than this one with Courage as a senior. We have to take advantage of this year.”
Wilson, who is also Wiregrass Ranch’s athletic director, said having that kind of pressure to win was what he’s tried to build when he started the program in 2007.
“Before we had good athletes, where now we have good athletes who are full-time tennis players,” Wilson said. “Before we were converting mostly soccer players, and now if you don’t focus on tennis you really can’t fit into our top eight. …Wiregrass as a whole, the athletics have been phenomenal from top to bottom. The cross country teams and soccer teams are competitive wherever they go. Boys and girls tennis has been very good, and it’s great to have Wiregrass tennis on the map.”
The Bulls host Land O’ Lakes March 14 at 3 p.m.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker
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