“Oh, my gosh,” Eagan senior Samantha Nichols shrieked after hitting a forehand volley into the net.
The Wildcats’ top singles player headed to the back of the line with angst, eagerly awaiting her next turn during a drill on Monday, the opening day of practice for the girls’ tennis team.
“Ah,” Nichols groaned as junior Lauren Ferg ripped a forehand smash down the sideline for a winner during her next repetition.
It was only the first practice of the season, but the Wildcat contingent was ready to be in midseason form.
“Last year was the greatest year I’ve had,” Nichols said. “We want to be successful again this year.”
The Wildcats are coming off their best season in school history. They were the Class 2A runner-up in the state tournament, falling to Mahtomedi 5-2 in the championship. It came on the heels of a fourth-place finish in 2015.
“We had a lot of fun last year,” Ferg said. “I think it was our hard work that set us apart from other teams.”
Thus, the eagerness to get the season underway at a high level. The Wildcats have eight players returning from the South Suburban Conference championship squad of a year ago.
“Last year took a lot of pressure off us,” said Eagan coach Scott Nichols, who is Samantha’s father. “That took a big weight off our shoulders. The girls are more self-driven now.”
The team returns with three of the program’s 14 winningest players. Samantha currently is second with 112 career victories, three behind Raechel Murray’s school record of 115. Ferg, with 89 victories, is fifth overall, and fellow junior Eesha Varma (62) is 14th.
Samantha Nichols, Murray and Ferg each “played the No. 1 singles position at some point last season,” Scott Nichols said. “Our practices are so competitive.”
Samantha lost in the quarterfinals of the singles individual tournament of the state event last year. She was the consolation champion in 2015.
Ferg and Varma fell in the quarterfinals of the doubles portion of the state tourney. It was Varma’s second appearance in the individual field.
“We all really had a good experience last year,” said Varma, currently sidelined with a sprained right wrist. “It was exciting.”
The trio all benefit from each other, going head-to-head on a daily basis.
“Our top three in singles are all tournament players,” Ferg said. “We don’t have a No. 1, and then a big drop off like other teams. We have somebody great to drill with every day.”
The competitiveness has also brought a family-like atmosphere to the courts at Northview Park in Eagan. The Wildcats have made three other state tournament appearances (2000, 2002 and 2010) under Scott’s guidance.
“Our captains set the bar high a few years back,” said Scott, in his 18th season at the helm of the program. “The tennis families of Eagan have built this tradition.”