PALMETTO -- Lakewood Ranch's short-handed trip to Palmetto High School was typical for this season. The Mustang girls have battled through injury, illness and inexperience during their state title defense while also replacing four starters from last year's singles lineup. Against the Tigers on Thursday, Ranch was missing its top two singles players.
Nevertheless, both Lakewood Ranch's boys and girls cruised to 7-0 wins at Palmetto -- the girls are 8-4 and the boys 4-8 -- and head coach Ed Bongart is nearly as confident as he was last year about the Mustang girls prospects entering the postseason.
"It's been kind of an up-and-down season," Bongart said. "We're going to give it a shot to -- I'd like to say defend, but we're in a different class now."
Ranch moved up to Class 4A after winning the Class 3A title last season, and this year it is carried by its depth. Ashley Bongart and Lauren Proctor, Lakewood Ranch's top two players last season, each won individual state championships in 2015, and gave the Mustangs an unshakable foundation. The base of this year's team is spread thinner, but the bottom of the roster is more reliable than last year's.
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Natalia Vuckovic, who was Ranch's No. 3 last year, played No. 1 and was one of three Lakewood Ranch singles players to pick up 8-0 wins in the pro-set match. No. 3 Sara Benson and No. 5 Morgan LaMarc also added shutout wins for the Mustangs. Grace Hagopian and Jessie Kroupa were Ranch's other two singles winners.
On the boys side, Lakewood Ranch's top four play
ers all picked up shutout wins. Anthony Pistella, Balwant Singh, Garrett Kelly and Philip Pugh scored 8-0 wins, and Joe Burton rounded out singles play with an 8-4 win.
"If we have all our teammates we'll be good," said Vuckovic, who Bongart expects to be playing No. 2 by the Class 4A-District 8 tournament. "We've just got to get everybody on board."
Earlier this season, the Mustangs played Saint Stephen's in Bradenton with only three girls. Even when Lakewood Ranch is at full strength, two of its five singles players are freshmen. The Mustangs aren't following the orthodox track they used last season and are still in intriguing position as the postseason nears after Thursday's rout.
Vuckovic has trouble comparing this year's team to last because Ranch doesn't have the dominant top two like the Bongart-Proctor tandem. As the regular season races to an end, though, it's become evident that Lakewood Ranch can still compete.
"Talent in tennis is talent at the end of the day," Bongart said. "As far as our singles lineup goes, I know that they're practicing, and working hard and looking forward to the postseason."
David Wilson, Herald sports writer, can be contacted at 941-745-7057 or on Twitter @DBWilson2.