'This year is our year': Joplin tennis enjoying successful season with unlikely mix of players

Apr. 17—The players on the Joplin boys tennis roster are not your typical collection.

But it works. The Eagles have a shot at capturing a COC title and their first district title in five years.

The Eagles, 6-0 in dual matches so far this season, feature a No. 1 player in Adam Badr, whose primary sport is soccer, and a No. 2 player in Leif Garrity, who picked up a racket for the first time last season.

Ben Converse, at No. 3, is a transplant from Florida. No. 4 player Josiah Hazlewood is a muscular linebacker for the Eagles football team, an accomplished wrestler and a powerlifter.

Rounding out the Eagles top six is sophomore Taylor Schlag, a newcomer to the team, and junior Oscar Kienzle, whose humor and levity are a big part of their ability to bond.

Not one of the top six Eagles are seniors — five are juniors — but that hasn't meant there is a lack of leadership. Badr has served as an ad hoc recruiter for the JHS netters.

During his freshman year, the tennis team consisted of about a dozen players; Badr's relentless recruiting of friends has swelled that number to 38 this year.

"Adam has that personality that makes other kids want to join in and be there," head coach Aaron Stump said. "He has stepped in to lead and even teach some skills to the other kids. I've seen them out on the courts playing, even when we are not in season."

JHS assistant coach Richard Perry added: "He has a hold on all these guys and they kind of look up to him. He has an infectious attitude and that's why the atmosphere here is so good and why we have so many awesome players. These guys are really tight, get along great and play for each other. It all starts with him and goes all the way down the line to Oscar and Chapel (Braman) and everybody."

Badr said he and the friends he has recruited worked on their game almost every weekend this summer.

One of Badr's most successful recruits is Garrity, a natural athlete who worked his way from someone with no tennis experience to being the No. 2 player on one of the best teams in the Central Ozark Conference.

'Fun, fun, fun'

"I told him it was the most fun he was ever going to have," Badr said. "All we were looking for last year was fun, fun, fun. Then last year he started playing out of his mind and fell in love with the sport."

Perry added: "He's an athlete. But what is even better than his athletic ability is his mind. He just plays smart. He doesn't go for too much, he knows what he has and plays within his boundaries."

Garrity took first in the No. 2 singles bracket last weekend at the Independence Invitational and Kienzle and Hazlewood took first in the No. 2 doubles competition.

Garrity, Kienzle and Hazlewood help provide a level of depth to the squad missing the last few years.

"He's a football player that does it all, really," Perry said of Hazlewood. "He has legs like tree trunks. He was injured before our first match. He was afraid he'd be out the whole season, but he's a tough guy and was able to get through rehab quickly and safely."

It's that kind of depth that Stump said has made this team successful.

Braman is the only senior among the 38 Eagle players and has been with the team all four years of his high school career.

Badr, a junior, has suffered through a couple of lean years with the Eagles, including a 5-15 record last season and a 2-9 mark in 2021-22.

The unlikely collection of players that make up this year's squad had their closest dual in their season opener against a talented Thomas Jefferson squad. Joplin survived that matchup with a 5-4 win. Since then, the Eagles have dominated opponents.

They blanked Neosho 9-0, defeated Nixa 6-3, downed Republic 8-1, and shutout Ozark 9-0. The Eagles defeated Carthage 8-1.

'Huge difference'

Stump said the addition of Perry as assistant coach has been important to the Eagles' success. Perry, who helped coach the Eagles in 2021, returned to assist the squad this year.

"He used to play at Joplin and was a state qualifier himself," Badr said. "It's been a huge difference with both him and coach Stump. Everything about our training has been a 180. It's unbelievable the change we've had."

On Friday, the Eagles will put their talents to the test as they host four teams for the Joplin Invitational: Grain Valley, Willard, Branson and Glendale.

With just four duals — Willard, Webb City, Branson and Carl Junction — left in the regular season, the Eagles have a shot at capturing a COC title and their first district title since 2018-19, when the tennis team finished 18-5 and fourth in the state. The Eagles faced a tough matchup with Willard on Wednesday, but results were not available at presstime.

"We obviously struggled a lot last year, so it feels good to win," Hazlewood, another Badr recruit, said after a recent match.

Stump talked about what a district title would mean for his team.

"It's the culmination of knowing that during the freshman year for some of these players, we knew it would be tough and they stuck through it that year and the next year," Stump said. "They developed each year and we've finally reached that stage where we have a strong core group that has that tennis experience and has made this season possible."

District realignment has taken Joplin out of a tougher district that features perennial powers Rockhurst, Barstow, Raymore-Peculiar and the Lee's Summit schools, and into to a more favorable Class 3 District 5 that includes host Kickapoo (10-3), Ozark (9-5), Nixa (3-5), Carthage (2-6), Republic (2-4) and Neosho (1-8.)

"This year is our year," Badr said after defeating Ozark recently. "Coming off last year, with all my friends and all these new tennis players who committed and fell in love with the sport, we're competing and are a possible state qualifier. It's such a big eye-opener. It's all been about falling in love with the sport and staying committed to what we want to accomplish."