FAIRMONT - Simply put, Eric Johnson loves the game of tennis.
Johnson has served as the Fairmont head boys tennis coach since 1998, lends a helping hand to Cardinals' mentor Kathy Krezel's girls program in the fall, and coordinates Fairmont's summer leagues.
Johnson has his fingers on the pulse of tennis in Fairmont, but even the long-time coach was a bit astonished during his boys tennis team's opening-day practice earlier this spring.
ACES RETURN — Members of the Fairmont Cardinal boys tennis team opening the season by traveling to Austin on Monday include, front row (l-r): Student assistant coach Melissa Viesselman, Austin Becker, Evan Carlson, Ben Hernes, Tyrell Zieske, Aaron Hendricks, Blake Haugen, Eric Head and student assistant coach Aubrey Green. Middle row: Christo Washa, Connor Madsen, Carter Klanderud, Sterlin Johnson, Ryan Busche, Mitch Anderton, Tyler Head and Jake Kallenbach. Back row: Head coach Eric Johnson, Henrique Marquez, Andy Hagen, Manuel Martinez, Kellen Rodriguez, Calvin King, Tony Joseph, Shawn Busche, Collin Stone and Matt Moeller. (Photo by Leanna Becker)
"I usually have an idea of who's coming out for the team, but I was surprised when I found out about Henrique (Marquez) and Manuel (Martinez) from some of the players after a captains' practice. I did not know they were here, but it's nice to have them playing tennis," Johnson said in reference to the Cardinals' talented foreign exchange student-athlete tandem from Brazil and Spain, respectively. "Both are good athletes, very coachable and love to play the game."
Now, Johnson's roster will feature some flexibility and added depth that he hadn't anticipated prior to Monday's season-opening dual meet against the Austin Packers at 4:30 p.m. in Austin.
Martinez and Marquez - a pair of juniors - will figure into the Cardinals' competition at singles, along with returning varsity veterans junior Sterlin Johnson, freshman Tyler Head and sophomore Austin Becker.
Sterlin Johnson worked his way into the No. 2 singles position for the majority of last spring, with Head and Becker contributing solid play from the third and fourth singles spots.
Eric Johnson anticipates those five netters, along with eighth-grader Carter Klanderud, battling it out for the four varsity singles spots.
Klanderud combined court forces with junior Ryan Busche at No. 2 doubles throughout most of the 2013 campaign, with Busche representing one of the top contenders in the doubles bracket again.
Cardinal team captain Calvin King, the team's lone senior, will join returning varsity veterans sophomore Jake Kallenbach and junior Mitch Anderton in the competition for the six doubles positions. Kallenbach and Anderton filled the No. 3 spot in the bracket a year ago.
Eric Johnson also anticipates freshmen Tony Joseph, Shawn Busche and Andy Hagen figuring into the doubles mix.
"That's what it looks like so far, but that's not to say there can't be other players working their way into the lineup," said Eric Johnson. "We were young last year, and we're still very young."
Senior standouts Aubrey Green and Missy Viesselman, who qualified for the Class A state individual tennis meet last fall, return to the courts this spring to lend their knowledge of the game to the youthful boys roster.
"Aubrey and Missy are mainly working with the junior high players and some of the junior varsity," said Eric Johnson. "They have played enough tennis that they have a good idea of what practice consists of and what I expect.
" ... They've been great to have helping out with the program, and they seem to be having fun in the process."
Now, Eric Johnson and his student assistants will have the Cardinal boys literally working on the next step in their progression - honing their footwork.
"Over the last two to three years, I've finally got the players to embrace the physicality of the sport," said Eric Johnson. "If you have good footwork, it's easier to get to the ball and make a good return.
"I think they're buying into it and really working on that aspect."
Fairmont opens South Central Conference dual-meet action against Section 2A opponent St. Peter at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Cardinal Courts before hitting the road to SCC and sectional rival St. James on Thursday for another 4:30 p.m. dual competition.