Tyler Oxtoby knew before spring break ever began that the week following the time off would present a challenge.
The lone senior on Polk County’s tennis squad, Oxtoby realized that back-to-back matches against Owen and Mountain Heritage would test both the team and himself, especially a showdown with Mountain Heritage’s Robin Stith, considered one of the top two players in the Western Highlands Conference along with Oxtoby.
Then came April 11, and tennis matches didn’t seem to matter quite as much for a while.
Oxtoby and his girlfriend, Hendersonville tennis player Annabelle Webb, were enjoying a relaxing day that afternoon at Jackson Park in Hendersonville, lounging in a hammock tied between two trees.
Suddenly, one of the trees snapped, dropping the two to the ground, the broken portion of the tree landing on Webb. She suffered extensive facial injuries that required surgery and faces a long rehabilitation process ahead, though Webb’s physicians expect her to fully recover and be ready to again hit the courts by July.
Save for some scrapes, Oxtoby avoided any injuries. But, needless to say, tennis may not have been foremost on his mind in recent days.
“Sometimes, in between points, I’ll stop and think about her,” Oxtoby said. “We pray before and after the match, and we’ve added her to the list of what we pray for.
“All the support in Hendersonville and all the support here has meant so much.”
Oxtoby won his match against Owen, but dropped a 10-7 decision to Stith as the Mountain Heritage junior played exceptionally well, building an 8-3 lead and fighting off an Oxtoby comeback. The two are likely to meet again Tuesday at the Western Highlands Conference tournament at Avery, where Oxtoby and Stith are seeded 1-2 in the singles portion of the tourney.
Focused on ending his career with a WHC title, Oxtoby expects Stith to be the final obstacle in doing so.
“I hope to make it to the final, and I’ll have to play Robin Stith again if I do,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s going to come down to me and him.
“The season has been going great. I played great the whole season, really consistent. I lost four times total, so that’s been amazing. I couldn’t hope for much better.”
The loss to Stith was the only blemish on Oxtoby’s conference record this season – he finished 7-1 in singles play and teamed with Henry Monts to go 8-0 in doubles. Just as importantly, as the team’s only senior, Oxtoby has provided much-needed leadership and experience.
“To finish 7-1 in singles and 8-0 in doubles in the conference, that’s pretty much the top of the mountain,” said Polk County head coach Richard Davis. “He has been, for all practical purposes, the model player.
“He came in his freshman year, and honestly, he was not very good and a little overweight. To go from that to where he is now is a testament to his dedication and his work ethic. He also has great parents who have been very supportive. Hopefully, he can win the conference tournament and complete his journey.”
That journey hasn’t always been a smooth one. Polk County struggled to even field a full team during Oxtoby’s first two seasons, making team wins out of the question. But a full squad led to a couple of victories a year ago, and this year the Wolverines stayed in the conference title hunt until the final two matches of the season.
Oxtoby, who plans to attend Gardner-Webb and pursue a business degree, hopes to see that growth continue.
“I hope support for tennis grows here and keeps the team stocked full of players,” he said. “I know the middle school ended the tennis program when Kenneth Alexander left.
“Hopefully, the team is going to be stocked with players and continue to grow.”
Thinking of others – Oxtoby’s been doing a lot of that lately.