By Gaige Winchester
On a Friday afternoon, the final bell rings releasing the students from Delta High School. Most of the students are focused on their weekend plans or the upcoming football game, but one boy was focused on one goal.
The year is 1993, and the boy is Bob Darby. He’s the star player for the Delta Eagles on their 1993 boys’ tennis roster, and he’s looking to lead his team to a sectional title.
The Eagles went on to win the match, and Darby went on to play on the men’s tennis team at Purdue University after high school. He continues to coach tennis through adulthood.
That match on that Friday evening was more than just a sectional win, however. It was the start of something much bigger. Since that win the Eagles have not lost a sectional match, and on Saturday, Oct. 1 they made it 30 straight years, taking down a solid Yorktown squad coached by Bob Darby, that boy from so long ago.
The Eagles, however, in that 30-year stretch have never endured a coaching change. Their long-time leader, head coach Tim Cleland, said it doesn’t add any satisfaction winning against Darby, partially because he sees it as players vs. players and not coaches vs. coaches, and partially because he has a strong friendship with Darby.
The coaches have a strong bond and have even played in doubles tournaments as partners.
“He’s a good friend and I always want to see him win,” Cleland said. “Just not against us.”
This match meant more to the Eagles than just a pretty number on their sectional streak or a win against a former player. Going into this season, the Eagles were only returning two full-time varsity players from the previous year while graduating 11 seniors last season.
The team stepped up to the challenge and put in the work during the offseason to be successful. The Eagles were victorious over the Tigers three times this season. The first win came in the regular season 5-0, then once again at the Delta Invitational, in a less convincing 3-2 decision. This set the stage for their sectional final match.
The Eagles came in on another chilly Saturday morning with something to prove, defeating the Tigers 5-0 without any match going to three sets.
What sets this season’s Eagles apart from teams of the past is how many first-time varsity players they have.
Riley Bratton, a senior leader No. 1 doubles player for the Eagles, said the change in his role on the team helped him become a leader.
“Last year I split time between varsity and JV, and I wasn’t really leading anyone. I was just on the team,” Bratton said. “This year I’m at No. 1 doubles which is one of the most leadership oriented spots on the team.”
Bratton’s partner, senior Colin McCrady, was also a junior varsity player for the Eagles last fall. He said that his biggest offseason improvement was his mental game.
“I used to let the game get in my head, and my opponents get in my head,” McCrady said. “I think that during the offseason I trained myself and with Riley (Bratton) encouraging me during points has definitely helped with that.”
Isaac Anderson and Preston Shanayda, along with Jake Bilby, make up the Eagles’ No. 2 doubles team. Both Anderson and Bilby were full-time junior varsity players last year, while Shanayda split time between varsity and JV and earned his letter. Shanayda said the biggest change he made was being on the court more in the offseason.
Shanayda said that all summer and winter he was always outside or at the YMCA hitting with anyone who would play with him.
Anderson said what made this sectional title different from the others was how the team was underestimated.
“It felt good, especially since a lot of people were doubting us,” Anderson said. “No one really thought we’d be as good as we are, but it means a lot to me, especially as a senior leader.”
With many of the Eagles making steady improvements they hope to build off the sectional victory Tuesday night as they take on the Jay County Patriots in the first round of the Marion Regional.