Top girls team
Nature Coast appears an overwhelming favorite to defend its Class 2A, District 6 title. Coach Louise Downey returns three of her top four singles players, including the state-qualifying doubles tandem of junior Rachel Conter and senior Olivia Williams. Conter, the incumbent at No. 1 singles, has been battling Williams for the spot. At the lower seeds, Downey replenishes her lineup with freshmen Mallorie Pickersgill and Delanie McCabe, whom Downey says were the No. 1 players last year at Challenger K-8 and West Hernando Middle School, respectively. "They're a very, very good team," Downey said. "I have high hopes for them."
Top boys team
Nature Coast and Wiregrass Ranch could wage a Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe-style duel in the Class 2A, District 6 tournament in April. Wiregrass returns everyone from last season's district runnerup squad, and the Sharks return nearly everyone from their third-place team.
How balanced are the Bulls? Senior James Mudge, a district champ at No. 3 singles, for now has supplanted senior James Reilly — last year's No. 1 — for the top singles spot, coach Dave Wilson said. Nature Coast returns six of its top seven, including senior No. 1 player P.J. Watterson, who defeated every local opponent not named Chris Nyholm in 2008. As a doubles team, Watterson and sophomore Simon Toftegaard reached the 2A state tournament last season.
Top girls player
River Ridge sophomore Tijana Subotic didn't surrender a set last year until suffering a pair of straight-set defeats in the postseason. A year-round player, she'll anchor a Royal Knights team that must rebuild the bottom of its singles lineup.
Top boys player
Normally, this would be a no-brainer. Hernando junior Chris Nyholm, below, was the Times' North Suncoast player of the year and a district singles champ in 2008. Problem is, we don't know if he's playing. After being disqualified from last year's 2A individual state tournament when his team arrived late, Nyholm said he wouldn't play for Hernando in 2009. So far, neither Nyholm nor new Leopards coach Reid Sellers have responded to numerous phone messages and e-mails. Ex-Leopard Eric Lawson, Nyholm's close friend and 2008 doubles partner, said he doesn't think Nyholm is playing. If that's the case, the race for local boys supremacy is wide open. Nature Coast's Watterson, Wesley Chapel's Yuya Burkhart and Wiregrass Ranch's Mudge all could stake a claim by season's end.
Other boys teams to watch
Sunlake: Look for the Seahawks to be in the thick of that intense 2A-6 battle. Coach Sam Koleduk returns everyone, including solid No. 1 player Nicolai Atkinson and No. 2 singles district champ Garren Dial, from an 11-4 team. Watch for freshman Lang Phi Tran Pham, who could work his way into the No. 3 singles spot.
Central: The Bears lost only one of their top five singles players from a 2008 squad that placed third in Class 3A, District 5. Among the returners: T.J. Armstrong, a district champ at No. 5 singles.
River Ridge: The Knights graduated the top of their singles lineup and said farewell to coach Paul Scolaro, who stepped down to pursue other interests. But this program always seems to replenish itself effectively.
Other girls teams to watch
River Ridge: Subotic and sophomore classmate Nicola Wellman give the Royal Knights arguably the area's best 1-2 punch, and a lethal doubles tandem. That alone makes another undefeated regular season conceivable. A playoff run, however, depends on how well coach Doug Howery's newcomers develop at the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 singles spots.
Wiregrass Ranch: The Bulls, runnersup to Nature Coast at last season's 2A-6 tournament, will mount a formidable challenge again. Sophomore Hannah Still, who defeated Sharks star Rachel Conter once last season, and junior Amber Fahrner lead a team that might be deeper than it was a year ago.
Ridgewood: The return of seniors Tamara Bustard and Aleesa Williamson make the Rams a team exactly no one wants to play.
Did you know?
• Danielle Fotopoulos, a member of the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup team and star of the University of Florida's 1998 women's soccer national title team, is coaching the Land O'Lakes girls. We don't know how the Gators will fare this spring, but we like their chances if any of their matches come down to penalty kicks.
• Wiregrass Ranch has 16 players on its boys team.
• Nature Coast junior Brittany Barrett, one of the area's top wheelchair players, makes her high school debut Tuesday against Springstead at Delta Woods Park. The Florida High School Athletic Association, in accordance with USTA guidelines, will allow Barrett two bounces on her side of the court.
Joey Knight, Times staff writer