George Wolbers became the Covenant Day boys tennis coach after the 2011 season had begun and promptly lost his first two matches as the players adjusted to him and he to them. What he’s done since has been simply amazing and this year the Lions – fresh off their best season in school history –may be in the midst of an even better year.
Wolbers took over for Marc Taylor after Covenant Day began the 2011 season 3-0. Despite losing their first two games, the veteran coach had a tried and tested blueprint for success and once he started to put it into place, guided them to an 8-4 mark, advancing his team past the first round of the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association playoffs.
But Wolbers had a bigger plan that he wanted to enact – a plan to change the Covenant Day tennis team from a collection of individuals into a united brotherhood. As a standout at East Stroudsburg (Pa.) High and later at Ithaca (N.Y.) College and the University of Arizona, Wolbers had seen teams come together and, more importantly, he knew what he was looking for to make it work again.
As a kid, he watched his father, Charles, lead East Stroudsburg (Pa.) University to a slew of conference titles and other numerous accomplishments on the court while molding those teams into harmonious units off it . Wolbers said he remembers those times well and they gave him a sense early on of what makes a tennis team successful – and it starts off the court.
Since his arrival, he’s guided the Lions to a 35-5 record, but more important to him than the wins and losses is the path that success has followed.
“When I came I had certain coaching experiences and certain mentors,” Wolbers said. “I knew the building of a tennis family and how to build individually good players into brothers was probably my biggest challenge, but they bought in.”
Last year, Wolbers led the Lions to a 17-1 mark that included a school-record 17-game win streak and the No. 1 overall seed in the NCISAA playoffs. This year the Lions are 10-0 through April 21, outscoring their opponents 81-9, and are looking to build on the foundation they’ve already set.
“We stick together and build each other up,” said senior Hunter Harbin, the Lions’ No. 4 singles’ player. “We’re a close team and it’s not like anyone is singled out. I think that’s really unique – especially in a high school atmosphere.
“We learned a lot form last year. We learned that no matter what we have to focus on the path that we’re taking and not just the destination. Last year we were so focused on the state championship and not the whole way through. We had a very strong team last year – and we do this year, too – but I think it’s more important this year to focus on the process and not just the outcome.”
Focusing on the process has helped the Lions mature in a hurry as many players have had to adjust into new roles. Harbin has been as solid of a No. 4 player as any around, Wolbers said, but he’s not alone in helping the Lions as they again have expectations high.
Jacob Wall went from a freshman who deferred to last year’s senior leaders to the No. 1 player who’s had to adjust to all that goes with playing opponents best players. Through it all, he hasn’t skipped a beat – winning every conference match but one, a loss he avenged against Metrolina Christian before spring break.
“It’s been tough, especially at the beginning,” Wall said of moving to No. 1 and taking on more of a leadership role. “There are no easy matches and you have to be on your best game for every match. It’s made me focus on the little things more in practice because I know I’m going to have to use them in matches.”
With Wall setting the example by seamlessly moving to No. 1, maybe no player has had to make a bigger adjustment than sophomore No. 2 Spencer Daniels, who moved into the rotation for the first time this season.
“We have Spencer Daniels who was a solid lose-your-sleep-type-player who you couldn’t put in the top six of the lineup because of where he was stacking up in (team practice) playoffs,” Wolbers said. “Now he’s at No. 2 this year – all along where his potential has been – and he’s been playing
In addition, Pierce Ormond, Davis Riggins and Matthew Ladnier have played more prominent roles this season as they round out the singles’ rotation, which has been near flawless as they’ve again gone undefeated and are riding a 10-game win streak entering their April 22 match with SouthLake Christian.
With their success and team-wide bond, the Lions are focused on making this the season so many of them had planned last year when the sole goal was to be playing on the season’s final day.
“What we wore on our sleeves last year, and what we wanted for the school, was that the team decided we wanted to be playing on the last day of the season – whether that meant a state championship or not – we wanted to be playing,” Wolbers said.
“We stubbed our toe a day earlier (in their only loss of the season to Cary Academy in the semifinals), but on the last day of the season before we went over to watch the finals at Country Day, every player to a man came out. We had a hit-around on the last day of the season and they fulfilled their goal.”
This year that goal has changed.
“I think we take each match more seriously, and especially after losing a few guys,” said Wall. “Everyone has had to step up and play new roles and player a higher line, so I think everyone’s just concentrating on doing their part.
“We want to do as well as we did last year, but we’re looking at every match more and we’re not as outcome-driven as last year.”
With their team-wide outlook in place and with everyone buying in to the same goal, the Lions have been completely dominant and are again staring a No. 1 seed in the NCISAA tournament and state title expectations in the face. This team, with largely the same roster, thinks they’ll be ready to take the Covenant Day tennis program to an even greater place.
“We need to focus on each match and take each one as it comes,” Daniels said. “I think that’s it, just slowing down and focusing on each match. Last year we thought about winning states all season and when it finally came it was overwhelming, but I think it’s different this year. We needed to experience it first.”
With an experienced group who has already tasted success – and a crushing defeat – they have all the tools to make this their most successful season to date.
“It was a matter of reloading this year, not rebuilding, and as the group becomes more mature I’m hoping we can take the next step,” Wolbers said.
“We need to continue to dedicate ourselves to the journey and not the destination. That’s what I’ve been telling them, but the biggest factor is that’s what they’ve been telling each other. Everyone believes in what we’re doing and everyone has bought in. That’s the main reason for how well we’ve done and what I wanted to instill.”