Mental strength reigns supreme for Lakeside tennis

With powerhouse Jonesboro out of the picture and a key senior season ahead for many on the Lakeside tennis team, the Rams look to make a run in the postseason and build on the success of last year’s state runner-up finishes.

Lakeside swept the 5A-South conference tennis tournament last season, and both the boys and girls teams finished second in the Class 5A state tournament.

Lakeside head tennis coach Shawny Green said the goal is to sweep the conference tournament again, but she also has hopes of reaching greater heights.

“I’m hoping we can make a run for the title and be state champs this year, hopefully,” she said. “I hopefully think we can get second place for sure. Our goal is to win the entire thing. Our state has changed a little bit this year.”

Jonesboro has won the previous five state tennis championships on both the boys and girls sides, but the Hurricanes are moving out of the classification and back into Class 6A competition.

Meanwhile Pulaski Academy, the defending Class 4A boys and girls state champions, is moving into Class 5A.

“You know honestly I think our mentality with Jonesboro was pretty strong,” Green said. “We never laid down. We always competed. We did as good as we could have honestly I think. There might be a little stress release because it’s just a different group coming in instead of Jonesboro year after year after year. So it’s going to be different. So there might be a little bit different mentality.”

Lakeside senior Ben Hollis just missed out on the individual state title the last two seasons after falling to Jonesboro’s Joe Patton in the championship match in both 2020 and 2021.

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Hollis exudes a humble attitude about the game of tennis and although a state title in his senior season would certainly be a great achievement, it does not seem to be his biggest worry.

“I mean my main goal is just to have fun and try my best,” Hollis said. “Winning state would be great of course, but as long as everyone’s having fun and trying their best, I think it’ll be OK.”

The 2022 season marks Hollis’ last chance to capture a state title in Lakeside colors, and his coach believes in him to reach that goal.

“I expect him to compete like it’s his last chance,” Green said. “Ben works hard. He works harder than anybody. He deserves it. If anybody can do it, he can. I know he’ll have the chance to, and I hope he can finish it and also get that title this year.”

Last season, Hollis noted that in the past he had been hard on himself during matches, but he worked to improve the mental aspect of his game both last year and this year heading into the 2022 season.

“I think I’m doing better,” he said. “I just try to not really worry about the points or the score and just hit my ball and try my best. It’s fun if it’s just a game, but if you think of it as a competition, a sport, it gets pretty stressful. “

Hollis is an all-around player and does not show many weaknesses on the court. The senior said his serves and volleys have improved tremendously. The main challenge he expects to face this season is within himself.

“Just my own head again,” he said. “If I get too stressed out or too nervous, that might be an issue. But I don’t think that’s going to be a problem this year. I think I’ll do fine.”

Lady Rams senior Julia Malone won the 5A-South individual title last year and heads into this season with eyes on a run at state.

“I see a little bit of a spark in Julia this year,” Green said. “I think she’s a little bit more motivated, and she has a little bit more drive. I think she really wants to go further. She’s been working really hard. I hope and expect that she will get far in state.”

Malone said winning the conference tournament in 2021 gave her some confidence, and she looks to win the individual conference title again. She also set a goal of making it past the third round in the state tournament.

“I’m trying to build up my endurance,” Malone said. “It gets really hot, and we start to play later in the day, and I feel like that’s where I kind of like — that was kind of my weakness. I’m really trying to go to practice a lot more and outside of school practice and just build my endurance.”

Just like Hollis, Malone emphasized the importance of being in control of her mindset during matches this season.

“I try to forget about the last point and just kind of focus,” she said. “Not try to get so wrapped up in how the rest of the game has been and just kind of keep on looking forward. I think that’s where I messed up a lot last year. I would just kind of get wrapped up in the first set and how bad I was doing. Now I’m just trying to forget about it — look forward.”

Malone fell 6-4, 6-3 in a hard-fought battle against Siloam Springs’ Olha Los in the quarterfinals of last season’s state tournament.

“You’re just hitting a ball back and forth,” Malone said. “You really have to stay in it. It’s so easy to just hit a ball out, and you’re thinking about it too much. You’ve just got to forget about it, and I don’t know how to explain it. Just be in it.”

Green said she expects a group of younger Lady Rams to make an impact for Lakeside this season. Sophomore Mia Francioni and freshman Campbell Wood are two underclassmen who could make waves for Lakeside this year.

Senior Elizabeth Cowen is a big doubles player for the Lady Rams and should do well on the court when Green figures out just who to pair with her for doubles play.

Looking ahead to the postseason, Malone said the team seems to be a lot more excited about the state tournament. She added that many more players on the team really care about the sport, and the team spirit is a lot better and more competitive.

“I’ve seen a lot more girls go outside of school practice,” Malone said. “I think we have a lot more people that actually enjoy it. They don’t just play school tennis. They go and outside of school tennis and actually play for fun. I think it’s really helped us get a lot better.”

On the boys’ side, Hollis is surrounded by a strong cast of fellow Rams. Walker Wood, Greyson Cornelison, William Ivy, Griffin Gulley, Graham Dolan and Barrett Tipton are all capable players that could really help Lakeside this season.

“That’s seven guys,” Green said. “We only have six spots to fill. That’s also something we’ve got to look at.”

Lakeside starts its season at home against Rogers Heritage Aug. 11. The Rams will once again host the 5A-South conference tournament Oct. 3-4 and will host the Class 5A state tournament Oct. 10-11.

“I think they’re ready,” Green said. “They’ve been working really hard. I’ve been very impressed with these past three weeks of practice. I think they all have a goal, and I think hopefully they’ll accomplish that.”

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