If Batavia boys tennis senior Ryan Sterling had any doubt how deeply entrenched he's become as a doubles player, they were erased during a recent practice.
Sterling has settled in as doubles partners with Adam Maris but took a quick detour back to singles, his former niche.
"A funny thing was I actually played singles again at practice and I was serving out wide, and Tim Murat, our No. 1 singles player, returned the ball, and it went to where Adam usually is, so I just let it go because I thought he was going to be there to return it for me," Sterling said with a laugh. "I think I've gotten used to the doubles and now I'm not as much singles anymore."
Sterling won't have to worry about such lapses this weekend as he and Maris eye a state berth together at the IHSA Waubonsie Valley Boys Tennis Sectional.
Sterling and Maris, a junior, take major momentum into sectionals after the duo won the Upstate Eight Conference River No. 1 doubles championship last weekend, avenging a regular season loss to St. Charles North's highly regarded duo of Grant Spellman and Aaron Amburgey in the final.
The regular season loss to North was one of only three for Sterling and Maris on the season.
Sterling has enjoyed a decorated career with the Bulldogs, and could become the third player in program history – along with stalwarts Josh Cogan and Frank Vermaat – to hit the 100-career win mark if he and Maris win a pair of matches at sectionals.
But Sterling is more focused on qualifying for next week's IHSA State Tournament after some disappointing near-misses in singles, including a frustrating sectional loss last year against a player from West Aurora that he had previously beaten.
"That left a real bad taste in his mouth," Batavia coach Brad Nelson said. "I think that may have been one of the things that helped him to think about doubles a little bit. He's really enjoyed doubles. He's really good friends with Adam and those guys have just really jelled nicely as a doubles team. They both have great hands, they both anticipate well and they see the court well. And they're smart players."
Nelson said it wasn't determined until just before the season in early March that Sterling would move to doubles and team with Maris.
Sterling, likely to pursue club tennis when he attends the University of Illinois in the fall, said the change challenged his muscle memory.
"You want to serve in the middle and you want to do a bunch of stuff that singles players do, like call the alley points out," Sterling said. "So you've got to stop doing that and you have to realize there's a bunch of different strategy that you do [in doubles].
"In doubles you don't just want to keep it in because people are going to poach you and destroy the ball. You've got to keep solid shots low."
As a team, the Bulldogs are 6-0 in weekend tournaments this spring but that's no guarantee of sectionals success with several quality opponents in the mix this weekend. Sterling and Maris (29-3) earned the sectional's No. 2 seed in doubles, giving Batavia its best shot – on paper – for a state berth.
"We like our chances," Nelson said. "Naperville Central's a phenomenal team. Obviously they're going to be tough, and then you've got Marmion in there, you've got Waubonsie Valley, Metea Valley, IMSA's in there. There's a lot of talent in our sectional so we can't take it easy now. It's going to get tough."