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Aggressive play keeps Tigers' DeHeart on top

After an undefeated regular season and a trip to the Class 2A state singles final, Jesuit's Ryler DeHeart is preparing for a busy summer.

By ROD GIPSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2001


TAMPA -- Forgive Ryler DeHeart if he isn't dwelling on his loss in the Class 2A singles final last month.

That just wouldn't be his style.

Even if the leg cramps he suffered in the 6-3, 4-6, 6-1 defeat were a result of his go-for-broke style, he isn't worried about it.

He doesn't have time because he's practicing as many as six hours a day, playing in local and national tournaments, and preparing to anchor the Jesuit tennis team and make another run at a state title.

In addition to placing second at state this season, DeHeart was undefeated during the regular season in Class 2A, arguably the toughest classification in the state, and sliced through competition in defense of his 2000 singles championship.

"I'm happy with the way I played," said DeHeart, the county player of the year for the second consecutive season. "I had a really strong regular season and played tough in the regionals. At state, I was playing well until the cramping, but even after that I thought that match could have gone either way."

But playing against powerhouse Ft. Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons ace Stefan Tell, the cramps proved too much as DeHeart lost. Still, as disappointing as a runner-up finish can be, DeHeart and Jesuit coach Joe Curtis only see positives ahead.

"He has improved every year as a player," said Curtis, who guided the Tigers to a tie for third place in the 2A state tournament. "His most significant feat was going 7-0 in singles play. I make the schedule myself and we play the very best competition. He had some difficult matches and played well in them all year long."

DeHeart credits his success to constant practice and an enjoyable relationship with Curtis, his Jesuit teammates and his longtime personal coach Steve Smith, the director of tennis at Carrollwood Golf and Tennis Club.

"I'm looking forward to playing next year," said DeHeart, who will be a senior. "But this is the time of year I can work on things like my conditioning and my forehand. Those are areas I would like to improve on."

A 5-foot-10, 155-pounder, DeHeart's style of play is best called aggressive.

He loves to attack the ball and rarely hangs back around the baseline. And while he admits this style can be risky, "when it's on -- it's really on."

"He believes in constant attacking," Curtis said. "He goes for shots others don't. But the difference is he makes a lot of those shots. But sometimes he uses up a lot of energy."

Which brings us back to this year's state final.

DeHeart and Tell split the first two sets before the cramps got the best of him. However, he did manage to pair up with teammate Taylor Ralph to capture second place in No. 1 doubles for the third year in a row.

"It's just a matter of improving physical conditioning," Curtis said. "And he's not far off from that because he's already played a lot of grueling matches for us."

Currently ranked 29th in the state's 18-year-old boys category, DeHeart said he is looking forward to the opportunity to play in college. He said he has about 10 schools he's interested in. "I think I've played really well in the past two seasons," he said. "But I'm really looking forward to improving my game and going on from there."

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