BY RICK REED
News-Gazette Sports Editor
Any measure of reasonable logic would suggest that athletic teams at Union City High School would have very little chance at sustained success, let alone winning championships. With a school enrollment of a little more than 250 students, the school does its best to fill up rosters in the fall for football, volleyball, boys' and girls' cross country, boys' tennis, and now soccer.
The school's football coach Keith Maloy may have put it best a few months back. "Most years you hope to maybe get to .500, and every 10 or 15 years or so a special group comes along and you try and compete for a championship."
Sometimes even that is wishful thinking.
Union City has a rather storied history when it comes to team athletics – most notably the girls' basketball team in 2016 made a magical run to the to the Class A state championship game. The baseball team is coming off an historic season. Great teams can be cited throughout the school's athletic history.
There have been numerous individuals over the years who have performed at a high level. But team success? It's become even more rare as the disparity between the big schools and the small schools continues to grow.
And yet what Union City's boys' tennis team has been doing now for the past several years defies explanation. Under Doug Jefferis, the Indians won Randolph County titles in 2017 and 2022 and sectional championships in 2017 and 2021. Over six straight seasons entering 2023, the Indians have been winning as a team at a highly successful rate. It couldn't quite be called a dynasty, but it's been a great run.
This year, with his workload requiring extended time, Jefferis has handed over the reins to one of his former players, 2018 graduate Trevor Spence, who played as the team's No. 1 singles player his senior year. Spence has embraced his role as a first-year coach, and still relies on Jefferis for advice and tutelage.
The 2023 version of the Indian tennis team has continued to excel. Coming off a another county championship on Sept. 9, the Indians entered the week with a 6-2 record and faced three different Tri-Eastern Conference opponents in three days. The first one on Tuesday loomed as the Indians biggest test as it pitted them against nemesis Knightstown, which joined the TEC in 2017 and has dominated in tennis. The Panthers finished a perfect 18-0 in the regular season in 2022 and were regional champions in 2021.
It's been the Panthers who have prevented Union City from capturing its first conference title since 1992.
"Ever since they joined the conference, they've been the bump in the road for us," Spence said of the Panthers.
With Knightstown having strong, experienced players at the No. 1 and No. 2 singles positions, Spence was hoping to win at the other three positions and finally pick up the elusive win over the Panthers.
At number two singles, senior Zach Fulk was undefeated on the year, but went up against Knightstown senior Brayden McDaniel, who dealt him his only two losses last year. Fulk put up a good fight, but lost in two sets, his first defeat of the season.
At number one singles, Union City's Owen Dowler also faced an opponent he had never beaten in Hunter Steimel. This time, however, Dowler used his improved play at the net and a stronger backhand to stun Steimel, 6-3, 6-3. Dowler's big win went a long way towards getting a team victory.
With Corbin Richards winning at No. 3 singles, the No. 1 doubles team of Brennan Hoggatt and Jake Thornburg winning in straight sets at No. 1 doubles, and Kolton Mills and Caleb Lutz winning both sets at No. 2 doubles, the Indians won four of the five matches and finally upended Knightstown.
The Indians went on to beat Northeastern on Wednesday and Cambridge City Lincoln on Thursday. They are heavily favored to polish off a perfect TEC season when they finish the regular season against Hagerstown on Tuesday and Winchester on Thursday.
This Saturday, Union City competes in the Tri-Eastern Conference at Hagerstown and will be looking to become the first team in 31 years to win a championship.
Next week the Indians compete in the sectional and will most likely need to avenge one of its two losses this season by beating Jay County.
"We've got a lot of work to do," notes Spence. "We're really in the best position to make a run at the TEC than we've been in many years. If we can get three in the finals, I feel that will give us enough points to win it."
With three seniors and four juniors on this years team, the window of opportunity for the Indians to continue its recent success appears to be a small one. There is no junior high program at Union City, so there are few players who have committed to the program before they get to high school.
But Spence hopes to find some new talent somewhere, somehow.
"We really need to make some noise this year, he said. "These guys are always open for advice and come to practice wanting to learn. They've been easy to coach."