It really wasn't supposed to be this easy.
After losing their No. 1 and No. 2 singles players from a year ago, some figured the Lecanto girls would hit at least a few speed bumps along the way to the district championships.
But here they are, undefeated and just as impressive as they were last season.
"You have to consider what other teams have too," Panthers coach Joan Roberts said, trying to explain her squad's 11-0 start.
"I knew we were getting some pretty nice freshman players, but I wasn't sure how they would hold up under the pressure to perform," she said. "But they've held up well, and that's helped."
The infusion of freshmen such as Ashley Campbell and Nisha Shah has helped, but so has the improvement ofJessie Roberts (the daughter of the coach), Mujiba Ansari and Jennifer Rimes.
For Roberts (9-2), who moved to No. 1 from No. 3, the increased level of competition has been a major source of her improvement. Her only losses this season came at the hands of Dunnellon's Jenny Hernandez and defending district singles champion Jen Ales of Central.
"Hitting against harder players and playing every day had really helped," Joan Roberts said. "Her serve has picked up, and her volley game has really helped in doubles.
"She has a few other things to work on, but if she stays healthy, she should be fine. To raise your level, you have to play at a higher level. When you do that more consistently and work at it, your game will rise."
Jessie Roberts and Ansari are undefeated in doubles. They played a pivotal role in Lecanto's 4-3 win over Citrus on Tuesday with a 6-3, 6-4 victory against Nicole Feldman and Sheila Wollatz that clinched the Panthers' 10th straight win. The 11th came Thursday in a 7-0 thrashing of Lake Weir.
"That match was good for us," Joan Roberts said. "We were able to see some things we need to work on. If you don't have tough matches, things you need to work on go unnoticed, and we want be ready when we go into districts."
MARKED IMPROVEMENT: Complements from friends are one thing, but when it comes from a chief rival, the complement seems to hold even more meaning.
Ian Feldt and his Citrus girls should give themselves a big pat on the back for their efforts this season.
After seeing the Hurricanes for the second time last week, Lecanto's Joan Roberts came away duly impressed by Citrus' marked improvement.
The 'Canes won three games against the Panthers on Tuesday, pushing Lecanto as far as anyone has this year.
Fueling Citrus' recent gains is the emergence of exchange student Sheila Wollatz as a bona fide contender at No. 2 singles. What's remarkable about this is that she played at No. 6 (junior varsity) in the first match against Lecanto.
Just don't tell that to Ansari, who lost in straight sets (6-2, 6-2) to Wollatz on Tuesday.
"Citrus has really come along," Roberts said. "(Wollatz) played J.V. the last time we played them, but I could tell she was pretty good then. I told Ian, "Hey, you have a good player there.' "
Andrea Hanson was another bright spot for Citrus last week, posting a win over Shah at No. 4 singles then teaming with Lindsay Horne for a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory against Rimes and Campbell at No. 2 doubles.
_ CAREY FREEMAN