State-bound Jordan relying on depth, team in second year
FULSHEAR—The program is only in its second year of existence, yet has accomplished something that hasn't been done since 2012.
The head coach is a mechanical engineer who left coaching tennis for six years, started his own company, and returned to coaching last year for one reason—to win a state championship.
Of the top 20 players on the varsity team, eight are freshmen. Sophomores make up most of the roster.
This is Jordan High's tennis program, led by coach Tyler Esterline and a precociously talented, deep roster of good-but-not-great players that won Region III-5A and is 20-1 so far this season.
Jordan is Katy ISD's first representative at the state tennis tournament since Seven Lakes nine years ago.
"It's so special," junior Aneesh Melachuri said. "We know we'll be remembered as a tennis program being the first regional champion. It's really nice to know we're first."
Jordan has conquered New Caney, Austin McCallum, Lake Creek, Baytown Sterling and Friendswood this postseason. The next challenge is 13-1 Highland Park in the state semifinals in College Station on Thursday.
"Our first goal was to get to state," Esterline said. "What we want to get out of it is the experience. We are so young, that it's going to be amazing just to be there and see championship-level teams. Once they see that, they know what they'll have to work toward so they mirror that in the next few years."
So, how did Jordan get here? How did the Warriors go from first-year varsity program last year, falling in the third round of the playoffs to a College Station team they had defeated in the regular season, to only losing one match this year, to Class 6A Seven Lakes, and punching their ticket to state?
WANTED: STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
It starts with Esterline, who grew up in Iowa Park, a small town outside of Wichita Falls, playing football in the fall and tennis in the spring.
He was an assistant tennis and football coach at Wichita Falls High before leaving in 2012. A mechanical engineer before he started teaching and coaching, Esterline returned to that field for six years before starting his own engineering company three years ago.
But the lure of coaching was too loud.
"I've always loved to coach, and the only thing that kept me out of coaching was the paycheck," Esterline said. "Once I'd established something where I didn't need to do that anymore, I got to pick and choose what I wanted to do, and tennis is where I wanted to be."
Esterline delegated his company's day-to-day responsibilities to two other employees and went out searching for a "place with good tennis that might want to hire me back."
He found that place in Jordan, which is located in Fulshear but borders Katy. It is an area that is a hotbed for youth tennis, home to a plethora of hitting academies.
"I came back solely to try and win a state championship," Esterline said. "I've never done that before."
The Warriors played a restricted schedule in their inaugural season last year because of COVID-19. Still, Esterline could tell he had talent.
This year, however, the difference-makers have been a pair of freshmen boys in Vincent Rivas and Vedhanth Rajagopalan. Their arrivals created substantial depth. Esterline's top players last year are now his third and fourth in line.
"We have virtually zero superstars," Esterline said. "But we're super deep. We pick up a ton of matches in that 3-4-6 spot, which is what helps us."
Rivas, the Warriors' No. 1 boys player, said he never expected the team to be this successful this year. He figured year No. 2 for the Warriors would be tougher.
But the gifted youngster who has played tennis "since I could walk" discovered that Jordan was capable of great expectations.
"Everyone tries. No one is holding anyone else down," Rivas said. "We're a solid team that loves to support each other. We have a coach who actually coaches us."
Jordan High's tennis players are pictured after winning the District 19-5A team tennis tournament earlier this season.Courtesy of Jordan High tennis Twitter
The strength of the Warriors is their singles play. Jordan won four of seven singles matches against Friendswood in the regional final.
Jordan's rise, however, has coincided with its improvement in doubles.
"What these guys come to us not knowing is doubles," Esterline said. "In close matches, we know we have to win some doubles to get started. We've got some good players, but it's the two-person game we've got to work on."
During practices, Esterline rarely has his team practicing the singles game. He has many freshmen playing doubles in the top seven who are not acclimated to playing doubles much, if at all.
"You'll see some of my girls wanting to play two-back a lot and rally from two feet from behind the baseline," Esterline said. "Well, if the other team is willing to come to the net, they're going to take away angles in a heartbeat and points are going to be over quick."
Esterline said the biggest strides his players have made are working volleys closer in. More of his girls are taking over at the net.
But the substance of Jordan's program actually has little to do with the Warriors' play on the court. It comes in the culture.
Esterline is big on accountability. That means players do not miss team practice to go hit with a hitting group or private coach. That's a considerable rule; Esterline said there are talented players slated to play at Jordan who do not play for the Warriors because they don't have the freedom to pick and choose when they leave practice, or how and when they attend matches.
Esterline said he has played teams this season where kids have driven up to the game, played their match, and got back in their car and left.
There's no in-between for Esterline. It's all-in or bust for his players. What that has created is an all-inclusive environment in which no player means more than another.
"Everyone on our team is a team player," sophomore Rachana Hari said. "Everyone has the motivation to get better. During our matches, we're cheering each other on, and it always feels great to have someone cheer for you when you're playing."
Esterline said it's crucial his players are vocally supportive of each other during matches. It can be the difference between winning and losing.
He felt that hurt them in the playoffs last year versus College Station. It was a boon this year.
"We had to come from behind in several sets," Esterline said. "Against Friendswood, we lost the first set in several matches and had to fight back. It comes down to the team. It's not just the guy on the court doing all the work. It's the rest of the team letting him know they've got his back and they're doing their part and they're winning, so he can swing freely.
"Tennis is dubbed as an individual sport, but 100 percent in the fall, you have to have a team that's good behind you. That's what we're trying to build here."