GRANGER TWP. — Reigning Gazette MVP and state qualifier Emily Hadler is the undisputed star of the Highland girls tennis team, but talents like second singles player Rachel Fannin and No. 3 Joelle Petek are big reasons why the Hornets are heavy favorites to win their third straight Suburban League American Conference title.
The 5-foot-7 Fannin, a junior left-hander, owns a 55-12 career record (3-0 this year, 25-9 as a sophomore, 27-3 as a freshman), while the 5-4 Petek, who is in her fourth year at third singles, is 57-36 (3-0, 27-6, 18-12, 9-18).
Factor in Hadler, a junior and two-time SL American first singles champion who owns a career mark of 65-12 (3-0, 34-7, 28-5), and the Hornets have not one, not two, but three solid singles players. All were All-Gazette picks in 2017, with Hadler and Fannin also receiving the honor as freshmen.
“We don’t have to worry so much because a match only has to be 3-2 to win it,” Fannin said Thursday after a non-league meeting with Wadsworth was postponed by rain. “Plus, I know we can always count on our doubles.”
Fannin, who started playing the sport when she was 8, won SL American second singles titles in her first two seasons and could end her high school career with four.
“Most teams have that one good player and then it drops off,” she said. “I’ve had a few good matches, probably five or six a year, but most have been pretty easy.”
A flat, hard hitter when she entered high school, Fannin has added topspin and more angle to her shots while greatly improving her serve. She fell one victory shy of advancing to the Medina Division I District as a freshman and sophomore and this year is out to take that step.
“My game has evolved over the years,” she said. “I used to hit flat and hard all the time. This year I have more spin and a variety of shots and I’ve perfected my serve. … I know (Hadler) is going to qualify for districts again, and I’m hoping to do that as well.”
Petek won just 33 percent of her matches as a freshman but upped that to 60 percent as a sophomore, when she went undefeated in SL American regular-season play but lost in the finals of the conference tournament. The right-hander really came into her own last season and won the SL American crown as the Hornets captured conference titles at all five spots.
“At that (third singles) position, I just have to keep the ball in and deep and trust my shots,” she said. “That’s how it’s always been.”
Having made the varsity as a freshman, Petek once dreamed of moving up in the lineup as her career progressed, but it wasn’t long before she realized Hadler and Fannin were just one year behind her in school.
“They deserve it more than me,” she said. “They’ve put in the work. Our team wouldn’t be as good without them.”
How good are the Hornets, at least on paper?
Six of the seven players who earned SL American crowns a year ago are back. Julia Gillin and Maddie Arbuckle, who played second doubles last year, are now playing first doubles. Sammy Kuczynski, who played first doubles in the 2017 SL American Tournament, is now playing second doubles with varsity newcomer Julia Clapper.
No Highland player has dropped so much as a set this season, and more help is on the way. Senior Raquel Nguyen, who played on the varsity at Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy the last two years but lives in the Highland district, transferred and is now eligible to join the Hornets.
“We’re going to be really good,” Petek said with no trace of bravado. “We haven’t lost that many players, and we’ve got some good new players.”
The truly scary thing is Highland also has a pair of talented eighth-graders, but right now the focus is on 2018 for the Hornets, who are 31-9 overall and have won 12 straight SL American matches since 2015.
Revere, which has a talented freshman in Morgan Dobos and solid Nos. 2 and 3 players in sisters Amy and Nina Lazbin, is expected to be Highland’s stiffest challenger in the SL American, but the Hornets are still a big favorite.
“I think we’re going to win the league again,” Fannin said quietly.
Highland also has a chance to win three matches in the Ohio Tennis Coaches Association Tournament, something 16th-year coach Lisa Reynolds believes would be a program first. The Hornets will host Bay on Tuesday in a first-round match, with the Cuyahoga Falls-Canton McKinley winner up next. A potential third-round match likely would be against Mayfield or Solon.
As always, Hadler will be the star leading the way, but she has solid backup on the singles courts in Fannin and Petek.
“She’s evolved,” Reynolds said of Fannin. “She has better defense now and seems a little more patient. Her game has more finesse.
“(Petek) is in her fourth year on the same court. She’s very confident, and that takes a lot of pressure off our doubles players.”