When Pleasant Valley finished runner-up at the Class 2A girls state tennis tournament two years ago, there were more smiles than frowns afterward given its youth and Des Moines Roosevelt's season-long dominance.
When the Spartans walked off the courts at the Veterans Tennis Center in Cedar Rapids last spring with another second-place trophy, this time to Cedar Rapids Prairie, the disappointment was evident in their eyes.
"After that first year, we looked at it and said, 'We've got one more step to take,'" PV coach Eric Crawford said. "We made about three-quarters of that step last year."
With five returning starters and a talented freshman in Kayla Nutt, the Spartans hope the third time is golden in claiming their first state crown.
Up until that 5-3 loss to Prairie in the final, PV was nearly flawless. It recorded 17 consecutive dual wins, captured titles in seven of the nine flights at the Mississippi Athletic Conference meet and won 155 matches versus 16 defeats.
And other than Sarah Oswald, who occupied the No. 5 spot, everybody is back.
Junior Lily Feldman notched 27 victories last spring and has finished second and fourth, respectively, at the state meet in singles.
Hannah Humes registered 23 wins and placed eighth at state in singles. Senior Emily Nutt and junior Roshni Penmatcha teamed for eighth in doubles.
Junior Abi Paravasthuramesh was 18-0 and the MAC champion at No. 6 singles.
"I think last year provided a lot of motivation for us," Nutt said. "I'm proud of what we've done, but it continues to motivate us to go that final step and win that last meet."
Humes said PV's varsity squad and top junior varsity players participated in the Thrive Tennis Academy at the Quad-City Tennis Club this offseason.
The players have poured in the energy. They're eager to see the results.
"The next goal for our program is to capture that state title," Humes stated. "We're going to have three seniors leaving this year who have played varsity for the past few years. It is really important we get that this year."
Humes is one of those seniors. She watched her older brother, Charlie, come up short at the state tournament for three years before breaking through last season in doubles with Sriram Sugumaran for a championship.
Now, she wants to leave her mark with a shiny, gold trophy.
"I know he's not going to stop teasing me about it if I don't end up capturing that title," said Humes, who will be sidelined for the opening week or two of the season with a stress fracture. "I was super proud for him, and I know deep down he wants the same for me."
Crawford admits doubles is his team's weakness and will be a focal point in practice throughout the season. PV was tied with Prairie after the singles competition last year, but lost the opening two doubles bouts to drop the dual.
PV has plenty of options in how it assembles those three doubles squads.
Emily Nutt played with Penmatcha in the individual state tournament last year, but spent most of the season teamed with Humes. Nutt also could be paired up with her younger sister, Kayla.
"That's the beauty of our team," Emily Nutt said. "We all know each other, we're familiar with each other and we have similar abilities and can play together."
Crawford said his imitative will be finding the three doubles teams that mesh the best.
"We've got a lot of pieces that can work together," he said. "Doubles is such a different game than singles."
The Spartans hope the pieces fit together come June and can result in a championship celebration.
"There was definitely some disappointment last year because on any given day we could have beaten Prairie," Crawford said, "but it also gave them that much more energy this year to try and make sure they go out and finish the job."