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Joyce Anderson  described Anastasia Goncharova as a “once in a lifetime” player after Goncharova earned back-to-back Illinois High School Association state runnerup singles honors in girls tennis in 2016 and 2017.

Not many programs can replace that kind of talent, but the Evanston tennis coach’s search for a successor will be aided considerably by the sheer depth of talent in the program now.

A staggering number of players — more than 90 tried out this fall — has resulted in a tennis “boom” and another level had to be added to the frosh-soph portion of the program to accommodate all of those tennis hopefuls.

Want a basis for comparison? That’s more players who turned out to battle for spots on the various net rosters than at conference rival New Trier, a traditional state powerhouse.

The record turnout will bolster a varsity squad that returns 8 seniors, the most experienced group Anderson’s had since taking over the program in the fall of 2011.

Goncharova, the first ETHS female player to win Central Suburban League South division and sectional singles titles, has taken her considerable talents to the University of California-Santa Barbara. She put Evanston on the state tennis map with the best individual finishes in school history, although the Wildkits have qualified singles or doubles players for State consistently since the 2013 season.

Now it seems that little girls growing up in Evanston all want to be a part of that success.

“We spent the first two years when I came here building the program,” noted Anderson. “Now we’re actually at the point where we had to cut some girls, and some of the seniors who played a lot might not play as much this year because the competition is so good. It’s very exciting, a nice problem for a coach to have.

“I think there’s a combination of things working for us. We’ve had a feeder program in the works now for 7 years and the Girls Play Sports program (led by Megan Livatino) has played a big role in it. With these numbers (turnout over 90) we had to add another coach. Because of the Girls Play Sports program, you’ve got more girls talking about tennis. They see their sisters, or their cousins, or their next door neighbor playing and they think hey, maybe I’ll try that.

“As a no-cut sport in the past, we’ve probably had girls who made the team and then didn’t feel they needed to play very much in the summer (to keep their roster spots). Now I can see across the board that everyone came ready to play right from the first day of practice, because it’s so competitive. They’re more motivated to get better — sooner.”

Some of those new faces will be apparent in the varsity lineup, as freshmen Lucinda Lindland (No. 3 singles) and Julia Demopoulos (No. 4 doubles) will take the court for today’s season opener against Elk Grove Village.

They’ll join senior veterans Margot Connor, Val Abusevich, Annie Hedges, Lily Magid, Mary Hays, Grace Tabet and Leah Altman and juniors Sophia Demopoulos and Zoe Coleman in the starting lineup, although challenges for spots will also come from seniors Ella Kanter, Angelica Flint, Amanda Rudolph, Kate McClintock and junior Danielle Kuo as the Kits try to improve on last year’s 12-4 dual meet record and also attempt to move up in the CSL South division standings.

“What’s really encouraging for me is the focus that all of these girls have shown so far,” Anderson praised. “They’re coming in here knowing this is a serious tennis program. You can’t control when you can get another Anastasia, but with all of that experience coming back they all know about doubles strategy and they all know already what’s expected of them.”

Connor has the unenviable task of trying to replace the best player in ETHS history at No. 1 singles, and will move up the lineup ladder from the No. 2 slot last year as a junior. She finished 3rd in the CSL South singles competition at the season-ending tournament, but actually began her career playing in the No. 1 spot by the end of her freshman year before Goncharova arrived on the scene.

She switched over to doubles for postseason play last year and qualified for State along with teammate Hedges, and now has the opportunity to join only a handful of girls wearing the Blue and Orange to qualify for State in both singles and doubles in the history of the program dating back to 1974.

“This is not the same Margot we saw last year,” said Anderson. “I think it’s been good for her to have time to mature without the spotlight on her (as the No. 1 player). I see a lot of growth in her speed and in her confidence. I don’t want her to feel the pressure to ‘replace’ Anastasia, just to have a successful year compared to her own performances in years past.

“She wants to play in college and knows that she had to step it up a notch to do that. She’s been working really, really hard and I think she has a good shot at qualifying for State.”

Hedges, a workout warrior for whom endurance never seems to be an issue, will be paired with the elder Demopoulos to start the season at No. 1 doubles.

 “When I looked at who I wanted to partner with Annie, I asked myself do you have a good serve? Are you aggressive? Can you get those easy putaway points? The answer was Sophia and that’s why I picked her,” said the head coach.

“I don’t have any expectations about things like State or the sectional, necessarily. We’d like to take a few more points from New Trier this year and we’re always picking at the teams that have been ahead of us before. But we don’t talk about outcomes with the girls, we talk about the process. We hope to improve every year by doing the little things involved every day in the process.”

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

Dennis Mahoney

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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