Bill Hughes has tasted plenty of success at Lake Braddock. In eight years of coaching tennis at the school, his Bruins have piled together enough winning seasons and district titles to make them the undisputed kings of the Patriot Conference. But like a tenured congressman with presidential aspirations, Hughes’ boys are no longer content with their place on top of the hill. This year they finally appear ready to do something about it.
The Bruins’ top two players from last year are back for more this year, but they’re no longer the team’s top two players. Senior transfer Jacob Daugherty, who moved to the area from Texas last July, supplanted junior Alex Nesterovich at the No. 1 spot after winning a challenge match 6-4 at practice last weekend. Right behind Nesterovich at the No. 3 spot is Eric Yoo, a five-star freshman who bumped senior Long Huynh from No. 2 to No. 4.
Suddenly the Bruins boast four tennis players who compete year-round, giving them just the boost they needed to go from district power to regional contender.
“You get some good ones and twos, but to have a good three and a good four, that’s what’s really going to be beneficial for us,” Hughes said. “Other teams like Langley have always had that — we could usually compete with one and two, but they would get us at three and four and five because we didn’t have that sort of depth. Now I’m looking forward to having that.”
Lake Braddock’s promise shined in a scrimmage against McLean last Friday. Facing a team that beat them 9-0 in last year’s preseason scrimmage, the Bruins put together a 7-2 victory that saw them falter only at No. 5 singles and No. 3 doubles.
While it won’t show up on their record, Friday’s win served as affirmation that the Bruins could finally hold their own against longstanding Liberty District powers down the line.
“I expected us to win, but I don’t think I expected us to win 7-2,” Huynh said. “That definitely gives us some perspective of where we are now and how far we need to go in the postseason.”
Huynh’s willingness to embrace a lineup demotion in his senior year embodies a team that cares more about wins than individual accolades. The returning captain grew used to his position at No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles alongside Nesterovich last year. Now he’s thinking about all the points he’ll be able to provide his team from the No. 4 singles slot.
“He’s just a real team player. I can’t say enough about his attitude,” Hughes said. “He’s just happy we have all these players. I think he’s just confident and comfortable with what he’s doing.”
Huynh and Nesterovich aren’t the only ones dealing with the lineup shuffle. Nick O’Connor has moved back to No. 5, while Scott Belcher, a senior co-captain, currently sits at No. 6.
“When you have a lineup change, it really encourages competitiveness,” said O’Connor, a junior. “You can’t be content with where you are because you’re always trying to push the next person.”
Daugherty, a Colgate commit, doesn’t carry an intimidating presence, but his mastery of every facet of the game is enough to blow most opponents off the court. His tendency to rule the baseline should combine well with Huynh’s preference to play at the net in doubles. Their chemistry got a head start last summer when Daugherty frequented Fairfax Racquet Club, where Huynh works and plays.
Daugherty’s arrival will only help the Bruins for one season, but Yoo’s presence signals more long-term stability in the years ahead. The No. 4-ranked freshman in the state according to TennisRecruiting.net, Yoo offers a prodigious serve and powerful ground strokes that make him look like anything but a freshman. He should combine nicely with Nesterovich, whose experience and track record might have him alternate with Daugherty at the No. 1 singles slot at times this season.
No matter what spots they hold in the lineup, Lake Braddock’s boys will have to maintain a competitive edge through a comparatively easy regular season en route to the rigors of regionals.
“I guess you could say the best competition for us is in our own team, so we like to practice really hard with everyone in our own circle,” Huynh said. “Then when we go to play opponents we still play 100 percent no matter what.”
If Huynh and company can stay sharp in the next couple months, they could be ready to exorcise their Liberty District (now Conference 6) demons at the 6A North Region tournament. The Bruins have been eliminated by Langley each of the past three years, each time by a score of 5-1.
Something tells Hughes this May will be different.
“This year I feel like we could compete with anybody out there,” Hughes said.