MUNCIE, Ind. — Between coaching both girls and boys tennis, Tim Cleland has delivered a post-sectional-championship speech nearly 60 times.
He is not, however, numb to joy of victory or the sacrifices his players make that have vaulted Delta tennis into one of the state's perennial powerhouses.
The boys team (16-8) at home on Saturday won its 30th straight sectional title, the third-longest active streak Indiana, with a 5-0 sweep over Yorktown. In his signature post-match address, it wasn't the magnitude of the number that made him emotional, but rather the journey this year's squad took to uphold the Eagles' winning tradition.
"We're pretty proud of this team at this point because this one was never guaranteed," Cleland said. "A year ago, I told the team after last season ended that, at that point, I felt like Yorktown was the favorite for this year because they returned many more players.
"A week ago, it was 3-2 (against Yorktown). We lost two points, and another one that we won was very close ... We worked hard to make to make it happen, both conference and sectional."
It's not often a Cleland-coached team begins a season 2-6. Sure, he purposely schedules some of the state's top teams to prepare his kids for postseason play, but there were concerns that with just two returning full-time varsity players on the roster, Delta didn't have the experience or skill to turn around its season.
The team's six-year, 35-match Hoosier Heritage Conference winning streak was snapped on Aug. 30 in a 3-2 loss to Greenfield-Central. Junior Dalton Royal, an All-State Doubles Second Team selection in 2021, quickly lost three matches after dropping just a handful through his first two seasons.
Owen Vest was 1-7 and struggling at No. 1 singles, and the Eagles as whole were down on themselves.
"There was a point where I think we were pretty close to beating them down because we were playing really good teams," Cleland said. "It's great to play tough schedule. It does help you, but it can get you to where you're losing, losing, losing, and you lose confidence, so we really had to pull out some tight wins in the middle of the season or it could have gone south in a hurry."
The shift began when Cleland made a lineup change. He moved Royal, his doubles star, to No. 1 singles, bumping Vest down to No. 2 singles. That meant first-year varsity senior Riley Bratton would lead No. 1 doubles alongside Colin McCrady, a tandem Cleland initially thought would be a weak spot.
It was a risk, and one that took time to yield the desired results. Bratton, now thrust into a leadership role, would be crucial to making the transition work. He leaned on Royal's guidance and learned to trust himself and McCrady, and after an "awful" first set against Lapel on Sept. 7, the pair found their footing and became a consistent winner.
"(Royal) took me under his wing ... Then with Colin, we both really weren't that experienced at No. 1 doubles, so we learned together," Bratton said. "He played really good toward the end of the season once we got on the right track."
Cleland commended the duo's handling of the situation, especially while going through their first full varsity campaign.
"Riley Bratton at No. 1 doubles has just been a rock," Cleland said. "Not a lot of fanfare, but he's won 18 of his last 21 matches, and he and Colin McCrady have done a very, very good job in the switch."
Cleland noted Delta's performance at the Kokomo Invitational on Sept. 10 as the turning point of the season. The Eagles topped a good Peru team that would go on to win its sectional, and the team's confidence and quality of play grew from there.
Royal, though, wasn't yet comfortable at No. 1 singles. He trusted Cleland's decision but wasn't thrilled with it at first. Facing every team's top player is a daunting task, especially after always having a partner to ease the burden, and Royal had to get used to that change in mindset.
He settled into the top singles spot during the Delta Invitational on Sept. 24. Royal went 3-0 against what he considered to be good competition, realizing then that he was worthy of the challenge.
Cleland maintained belief in his best player, which helped Royal keep his spirits high. The process made this sectional title all the more gratifying.
"(Cleland) was really tough on us throughout the whole entire (season)," Royal said. "He just never let up on us, so the fact that he said that we weren't going to win a year ago and we won and it was a 5-0 victory over Yorktown, it's just super special."
Delta, which is 111-5 overall in its last 30 sectional and regional tournaments, with face Jay County in the Marion regional semifinals on Tuesday, Oct. 4.
Delta sectional championship results
No. 1 singles: Dalton Royal beat Anson Isaacs (6-0, 6-1)
No. 2 singles: Owen Vest beat Jayden Sarino (6-0, 6-0)
No. 3 singles: Kody Vest beat Mark Avilia (6-1, 6-4)
No. 1 doubles: Riley Bratt/Colin McCrady beat Ethan Darby/Raphael Sabijon (6-2, 6-1)
No. 2 doubles: Isaac Anderson/Preston Shanayda beat Joe Stinson/Ryan Richards (6-3, 7-6 )
Burris' Charlie Behrman advances to individual tournament regionals
Although Delta topped Muncie Burris 4-1 in the opening round of sectionals, Owls No. 1 singles senior won 6-0, 6-0 over Royal.
It was no surprise for a player Cleland called one of the area's best players in recent years. Behrman is currently undefeated on the season, as he was at this stage in 2021 before losing in the individual regional round after winning his first two postseason matches.
That defeat motivated Behrman all offseason. While his on-court skills have always been sharp, he thought his mental approach needed work.
"I felt like past couple years I've been so worried about the score line or not trying to lost a point or not trying to lose a game," Behrman said. "This season, I felt like I played more relaxed and worked on getting better and just not really worrying about the outcome, and I feel like I'm playing the best tennis I have been. I'm pretty excited about this postseason."
Behrman started playing tennis at a young age. His father, Neil, is Burris' head coach, and Behrman's grandfather played and has been his primary coach.
He was also drawn to the individual nature of the sport and enjoys the personal responsibility he feels on the court. Self-scrutiny and high standards come with that as well, but part of Behrman's new mindset has been focusing on others.
The Owls had just three returning varsity players this fall. Behrman, being a senior, could've chosen to strive for only individual accolades but instead tried to improve the future of Burris boys tennis.
It gave him a different perspective on the game, imparting what he's learned through countless hours of training and high-stakes matches.
"There were seven new guys who had never played tennis before and (I was) just trying to be a good leader for them and just trying to be a good person who could coach them through the challenges of competing," Behrman said. "It was really enjoyable just to work with those guys."
Although he entered the postseason 19-0 in consecutive years, Behrman believes he has a better chance to advance this time. He played the state's No. 2-ranked player close earlier this year, and his goal is to at least make it to the semistate round.
Making it to the state finals, however, would be the realization of a dream. Behrman plans to continue playing tennis in college, so this likely won't be his last competitive experience, but it's one he's worked toward his whole life.
"That's been my goal for a long time since (I began playing) high school tennis," Behrman said. "It would mean everything. Just all the work that I put in and everybody who has supported me, it would mean a lot."
New Castle dethrones Knightstown as sectional champions
New Castle on Friday won its first sectional title since 2017 and 19th in program history, sweeping Shenandoah 5-0 at home.
Individual results were No. 1 singles Trent Alfrey (6-0, 6-0), No. 2 singles Caden Blackford (6-1, 6-2), No. 3 singles Jake Jenkins (6-1, 6-1), No. 1 doubles Sam Underhill/Braylon Cornwell (6-2, 6-2) and No. 2 doubles Leo Underhill/Vincent Farris (6-0, 6-0).
The Trojans got a tough draw in the first round, facing a Knightstown team that won four consecutive sectional titles since ending New Castle's streak from 2014-17. But the team emerged victorious, 3-2, and swept Blue River in the semifinals.
New Castle is now 20-5 and set a new program record for wins in a season. The team will face Centerville in the Richmond regional at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4.
Jay County wins second sectional title in three years
Jay County on Thursday topped Winchester 3-2 at home to win its second sectional title in three years and the eighth in program history.
The Patriots beat Union City 4-1 on Wednesday to advance to the semifinals.
The team will play Delta in the the Marion regional semifinals on Tuesday, Oct. 4.
Gus Martin is a sports reporter at The Star Press. Follow him on Twitter @GusMartin_SP, and contact him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Muncie Star Press: IHSAA tennis: Delta 30th sectional title; New Castle, Jay County win