After winning the Class AAA Section 1 title in 2010 and '11, the Hempfield Area High School girls tennis team slipped to third place last season.
But with one extra year of experience and an influx of young talent, the Spartans are back near the top this season.
Hempfield won its first five section matches, including a 3-2 win against Franklin Regional last week. The Panthers won the section title with a perfect 14-0 record last year.
"We're a lot stronger this season," said junior Madison DeBone, who is the Spartans No. 1 singles player for the second year in a row. "We have more depth on this team and we're playing really well right now. We just need to continue."
DeBone was a WPIAL qualifier last season, finishing third in the section singles tournament.
Playing behind her is a freshman, Maura Sackett. Hempfield coach Jerry Way said Sackett and DeBone set the tone for the team.
"[Maura] and Maddy have a grittiness about them and when they walk on the court, they're there to beat you," said Way. "There's no clowning around."
Way said that focus is what sets this Spartans' team apart from some of his previous teams.
"We've had good teams, but I don't know if they were this cohesive and this focused," Way said. "These girls have a different attitude. They're all business and take it very seriously."
Which is impressive considering Hempfield's youth. Of the Spartans top 11 players, only two -- captains Emily Bevington and Amanda Jepson -- are seniors.
Bevington is starting at No. 1 doubles for the second season in a row, playing with freshman Annie Iezzi. Jepsen, meanwhile, started at No. 3 singles last season. But with the addition of the team's two freshmen, along with sophomore Alaina DeGregory's improvement from part-time doubles starter to No. 3 singles player this season, Jepsen has moved down to No. 2 doubles.
Jepsen didn't have an issue with the move.
"The freshmen made camp a little tougher, but she said she would play anywhere to help the team win," Way said.
"Sometimes you have kids who have the attitude that I want to play here and if I don't, I don't want to play. But not these girls. They want to win."
The Spartans have done plenty of winning so far this season. But the Spartans have done this in the regular season before without making a dent in the WPIAL playoffs.
Hempfield has qualified for nine consecutive WPIAL team tournaments, but the Spartans have gone 0-9 in first-round matches.
Way, however, believes this team has the talent to do what his previous teams were unable to accomplish.
"I know they have the talent and ability," Way said. "I've worked with a lot of them since grade school. I believe in their talent, they just have to believe it. I know they can do it, they just have to find it in themselves."hsother