Could co-ops rejuvenate tennis in area?

John Kilgore saw the issue get worse, and this past winter, he decided to do something about it.

The Souhegan High School boys tennis coach, whose Sabers won the Division II title last year and are contenders again this year, has lobbied in the last year to the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association’s tennis committee to look into possibly using the co-op concept (merging two programs from different schools) as a way to save dying tennis programs.

Kilgore is surrounded by them, with Wilton-Lyndeborough and Milford both lacking boys tennis teams. For the Warriors, it’s the second straight season. For the Spartans, they struggled to field a full team nearly every match last spring and in the off-season, according to athletic director Marc Maurais, had just three players show interest.

“Two years ago Wilton lost their team, and I live in Wilton,” Kilgore said. “And last year Milford. Each of them had maybe three or four (potential players) and maybe a coach.

“But both teams dropped out. And the schools still had girls teams. Still had a tennis program, still have facilities, everything is still going at the school. There’s no reason to lose it at the school.”

Kilgore said no one had really thought that it was possible to co-op tennis “the way you do it for the hockey teams. So we inquired last year at the committee meeting, and said the reason we’re doing it is so that you don’t lose tennis.”

Kilgore figures a co-op would still keep tennis interest alive.

“If some kids are playing at the school, they can eventually grow a team back,” he said. “But if they stop playing, the teams die. It has to have continuity.”

Thus, Kilgore feels a co-op would be a perfect scenario. It is definitely a head scratcher that neither Milford or WLC can’t have enough players for boys tennis, especially when a facility like Hampshire Hills is right nearby.

There are also advanced non-school programs that some top high school age tennis players flock to, like some players do in hockey with junior programs.

The co-op solution seems a natural. It’s obviously prevalent in hockey, and not just with small schools – both Nashua South (with Pelham), and Nashua North (with Souhegan) co-op. In hockey’s Division III, nine of 12 teams are co-op teams. It’s also being used more in football, as four of Division III’s 12 teams are co-ops, one each in Division IV and II.

But with tennis, it’s likely been an afterthought, seeing as how it needs a minimum of six players to be able to fill out a full singles/doubles ladder.

“Ideally, any team could do this, if they have two or three players,” Kilgore said. “They just have to meet for the matches, even if they practice separately. Just like hockey players. So as of now, it can be done.”

The only drawback could be where a co-op team is placed, meaning division, because the combined enrollments could put them in a higher division (tennis has three) than desired. But schools can appeal that – it evidently worked with Alvirne and Milford when they co-oped for hockey and stayed in Division II.

Kilgore feels athletic directors aren’t in the habit of doing this for tennis, and that he got the word in February it was OK. Now he wants to spread the word.

“Up until now, no one knew you’d be able to do that,” he said.

What does he think is the problem? He’s seen boys volleyball around the state take some players away from tennis, but locally neither Milford nor Wilton-Lyndeborough have those programs.

“I know our signups went down about 50 percent,” he said, since boys volleyball became a sport at Souhegan, adding one year he even lost his No. 1 player.

“But for a lot of sports it’s the same way. We get some basketball players, and they try out tennis. Sometimes they like it, sometimes they don’t.”

Kilgore feels the schools that are losing numbers in tennis need someone to promote the sport more within the school. He felt for former Milford coach Jean Marie-Lambert, who struggled a year ago to field a team.

“She knew last year she didn’t think she was going to get the signups(this year),” he said. “She didn’t have the players, she didn’t have the interest. Only four or five players last year. She was aware there wasn’t interest

coming.”

Maurais says this is an option he may look into.

“I can only speak for myself, but I would not be opposed to looking into this down the road as an option,” he said in an email.

Sharp at No. 1

Back to tennis and Kilgore, who has not had to worry about a No. 1 singles player the previous four seasons thanks to the play of the now graduated state singles champion Matt Lapsley. Well, he likel still doesn’t because the Sabers like their junior Sam Goddard just fine, thank you.

And what’s not to like? Goddard has elevated his game, knowing he would be Lapsley’s successor. Monday he dismantled Hollis Brookline’s No. 1 Nic Vahe, and Vahe was likely ironically looking forward to not having to deal with Lapsely.

“Goddard’s dominant,” Hollis Brookline coach Jim McCann said. “He plays a lot. He’s improved his game a lot, and even his game was great last year. You could see he’s really taken the next step. He could be on par with Matt. Next year, when he’s a senior – he’s one of the favorites.”

The two teams don’t see each other again this season, after routinely playing each other twice in previous years. But perhaps they could in the post season. Meanwhile, McCann isn’t worried about his top player, junior Vahe’s confidence after the tough individual loss Monday.

“He knows who he’s got to work hard to beat,” he said. “He knows what he’s up against. When he played Matt, he got better and better each time he played him, and I think he took something from that.

“I think in this case he’ll have that same opportunity next year. They’re both juniors. They’ll play next year. He knows what the target is, right? So he’ll get better and better.”

You get the feeling Goddard will too.

“He’s teaching tennis now, and plays with men at the club who play better tennis,” Kilgore said. “And does lessons routinely. Just a lot of court time.”

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