Heading into last season, Carroll tennis coach Kyle Stoffel had a problem. He needed a captain, and the only senior on the roster was a first-year varsity player who played No. 2 singles.
Now, sometimes teams have junior captains, but usually that role is reserved for seniors who have been on the squad for at least two years. It's also very rare for a program like Carroll's with a state reputation to go with an underclassman.
Really, Stoffel had no choice, and he named sophomore Rachel Sutton as his official team leader. She had played No. 1 singles successfully as a freshman, and she had the right attitude. In other words, being the captain wasn't going to change her attitude or game.
``I was thinking she'd probably be a pretty good role model for all the rest of the girls as far as playing tournaments and what hard work can get you,'' Stoffel said. ``That's what you want from a captain. You want someone who is going to be a good role model, is assertive and will impose her will on the team a little bit in the right way.''
That worked out pretty well for Stoffel, Sutton and all the Chargers. Carroll recently clinched its second straight undefeated Northeast Hoosier Conference season, going 7-0 both years without losing a point in any league matches. The Chargers have also climbed to No. 12 in the state coaches poll, a school record.
Heading into Wednesday's sectional tournament, the Chargers are favored to win the regional.
``This year we're favored in both sectionals and regionals, but we can handle it,'' Sutton said. ``We've practiced really hard.''
She's setting the tone for her teammates. If she expects to play well and win, they'll expect to play well and win.
Sutton said last year she felt like a little sophomore who had to learn how to be a captain. She had to also learn everybody's name for the pre-match introductions and focus on her own game while leading on and off the court.
``We have more girls playing tournaments on this team than I've ever had on a team before, and to me that's one of the No. 1 ways you can get better quicker,'' Stoffel said. ``We're probably 16, 18 deep with girls who play winter tennis now. She's been a great role model, and people see what she can do and start realizing what they can do.''
As far as her own game, Sutton is open to working on areas that need improvement. She's trained on coming to the net and working on her overheads. She's also gotten better strategically and learned to channel her intensity.
``I'm very aggressive and very competitive,'' she said. ``I never give up and always fight to the bitter end. A lot of people say I'm not very fun to play because I'm very intense.''
She's actually got a little bit of mean to her game.
``I've heard that a few times this season, actually,'' Sutton said. ``Oh, well, I'll get over it.''
Likely, the Chargers' opponents won't.
Sectionals start Wednesday
No. 12 Carroll earned a first-round bye at the Carroll Sectional and will face the winner of Wednesday's match between Northrop and Snider. Churubusco plays Blackhawk Christian in the other first-round match with the winner facing Leo in Thursday's semifinals. The championship match will be played Friday.
Traditional rivals Canterbury and Homestead drew away from each other at the Homestead Sectional. Canterbury plays Wayne and Homestead serves to two-time Summit Athletic Conference champion Bishop Luers when play opens Wednesday. The championship match will be 4 p.m. Thursday.
Concordia Lutheran has won the last four years at the Concordia Sectional but will be tested by SAC runner-up Bishop Dwenger.
The winners at Carroll, Homestead, Norwell and Concordia advance to the Homestead Regional starting May 21.