ELLSWORTH, Maine — The undefeated Ellsworth High School boys tennis team will begin its quest for a third Eastern Maine Class B championship in the last four years when it hosts a regional quarterfinal match Thursday.
And perhaps in the back of the Eagles’ collective mind is an even bigger goal — the program’s first state championship since 1996.
Ellsworth or any other Eastern B boys tennis champion is unlikely to be favored against the best in the West, as EM boys teams have won just two Class B state crowns in the last 13 seasons (Camden Hills of Rockport in 2005 and Caribou in 2008).
But the Eagles seemingly have shown during their regular-season schedule enough talent, experience and chemistry to suggest anything is possible.
“They just seem to be cohesive as a group,” said Brian Higgins, the only tennis coach the school has had since Ellsworth first fielded a team in the early 1980s. “They get along together, and in challenges they play hard against each other, but whoever wins it’s a handshake and a smile afterward and there are no bad feelings between them.”
The Eagles are anchored by three four-year varsity players in Tyler Small, Dillon Toothaker and Brandan Albee — seniors who share a career team record over that span of 56-4, with two of the losses coming in state championship matches.
Small and Toothaker played first doubles together as freshmen on Ellsworth’s 2009 Eastern Maine championship team and have played first and second singles for the last three years.
Small has been among the top seeds in the state singles tournament each of the last two years, seeded eighth in 2011 and sixth this spring while advancing to the quarterfinals a year ago and the Round of 16 this season.
“Tyler doesn’t seem to get very upset about anything and doesn’t show emotion the other way, either,” said Higgins. “He plays pretty consistent, and I think he wears people down and frustrates them because he hits so many balls back.”
Senior Tyler Beardsley, a third-year varsity player, plays third singles for the Eagles, while Albee and third-year senior Dustin Murphy are the first doubles tandem and junior Diego Cox and senior Caleb Morren play second doubles — with freshmen Alec and Evan Toothaker another capable doubles team.
The Albee-Murphy tandem won last weekend’s Penobscot Valley Conference doubles championship after defeating the Toothaker cousins in the semifinals.
Quality depth is a strong suit of this year’s team, Higgins believes.
“We kept 11 boys on the varsity this season because we couldn’t choose from among them, and we cut three or four boys who probably would have been starters a few years ago,” he said.
That depth and experience is similar to Ellsworth’s 1996 state championship team, which had six senior starters along with Higgins’ son, Darby.
“The ’96 team was pretty good, too,” said Higgins. “That’s the only time we’ve won the state championship, and they were good for four years.”
This year’s team not only finished atop the Eastern B standings with a 12-0 record but has won 59 of 60 individual matches. Small and Beardsley are undefeated in singles, while the Albee-Murphy tandem as well as the second doubles grouping of either Cox and Morren or Alex and Evan Toothaker also are unbeaten.
Higgins, who credits assistant coach Alan Toothaker for aiding in the team’s recent successes, has coached Ellsworth tennis teams to 13 Eastern Maine titles over the years — seven for the girls, who are 10-2 and seeded third this spring behind unbeatens Waterville and Caribou, and six for the boys.
What makes the feat even more impressive is that Ellsworth does not have a junior high program, and for many of the athletes who have contributed to those victories, tennis is not their highest-priority sport.
“We joke that the kids put their rackets away after the last match and they pick them back up again on the first day of preseason,” said Higgins.
Between the boys and girls teams, Higgins enters postseason play needing just two more wins to reach 600 in his tennis coaching career with the Eagles.
“It just means I’m getting pretty old,” said the 67-year-old Higgins, who last fall surpassed 500 coaching victories with the Eagles’ boys soccer team. “But I think between tennis and soccer we’ve won 30 Eastern Maine championships, and that means we’ve touched a lot of kids and a lot of kids have a lot of nice memories of those sports at Ellsworth High School.”