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Bulldog senior Juan Montanez pops the ball back over the net during boys’ doubles play Tuesday against NMMI at The Mack. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Graduation took its toll again on the Artesia High School tennis teams in 2017.

The Bulldogs bid farewell to three members of their top four, while the Lady Bulldogs lost all four of their top players. When that happens, it’s a baptism by fire for both the athletes who previously competed in the lower half of the lineup – as they’re called on to step up against much stiffer competition – and those with little to no varsity experience who must come up to take their place.

“That’s kind of the position we’ve been in the past couple of years,” Artesia head coach Tim Trentham said. “We’re young and we’re inexperienced, but we’ve got some good athleticism on both sides.

“We have some really strong leadership on the boys’ side with Jesus Valdez back for his fourth year and Juan Montanez for his third. Those two boys going 1-2 at the top of the ladder should do well to anchor our team and really help with some of the younger guys. On the girls’ side, we only have one senior, and she’s new to the varsity this year. Only my 5 and 6 from last year are returning; everybody else is new.”

All of that considered, the teams’ first four tournaments of the season were largely proving grounds. Competing against some solid competition, the ‘Dogs and Lady ‘Dogs used them to hone their skills and adjust to their new positions on the team, with some good results emerging as a bonus.

At the Onate Invitational in Las Cruces, Valdez was able to take the consolation portion of the bracket. And at the Wildcat Playback in Lovington, the Artesia netters were able to get an early glimpse of District 4-AAAAA opponents Roswell and Lovington, splitting with the Coyotes and defeating the Wildcats.

The Coyote Classic in Roswell March 2-3 provided a chance to compete against their third district opponent, Goddard, and saw the Bulldogs top the Rockets 5-4 and the Lady Bulldogs come up just short, 4-5.

“That was a really, really tight one for the girls, and the match they lost was a split set,” Trentham said.

Last weekend at the Claire Higgins Invitational in Carlsbad, the netters were able to cross swords with a variety of squads from Texas, another opportunity to grow and learn from quality competition.

“We’re playing good teams,” Trentham said. “It’s not like we’re playing people who don’t know how to play tennis. In Carlsbad, it was all Texas teams except for us, Santa Fe and Carlsbad, and those kids are playing year-round.”

Lady Bulldog senior Samera Hernandez puts some power behind her serve in girls’ doubles play. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The Artesia teams hosted their home opener Tuesday at the Mack Chase Athletic Complex, a dual against NMMI. The perennially powerful Colts came out on top of both sides, defeating the ‘Dogs 0-9 and the Lady ‘Dogs 1-8. But the athletes in orange will be able to shake those losses off and continue their progression this weekend at the Cavern City Classic in Carlsbad.

“This weekend is going to be another tough one,” said Trentham. “This tournament will have Carlsbad, Hobbs, Robertson, Lovington and St. Michael’s, and we’ll need to be ready to play.

“Our short-term goal right now is really just for this group of kids to find success where they can find it. These tournaments we play aren’t easy by any means. But now we’ve seen everybody in the district, so now we have a good sense of where we’re at and what we have to do to try to win district, which is always the goal.”

Trentham feels his teams have an excellent chance at sweeping D4 this season, considering the parity graduation losses at the other schools have left behind.

Following their March 27 dual against Portales at The Mack, they’ll kick off D4 play April 3 with a home dual against Goddard.

“I think this year is a good opportunity for both our boys and girls, because realistically, I don’t think anybody’s top dog, from what I’ve seen. Nobody is unbeatable. There’s no Goddards of the past that were just stacked up and down, no Roswell girls’ teams that are absolutely dominant, and Lovington used to be able to scrap, but they’re pretty young and inexperienced this year, so I think we can overpower them.

“I think it’s going to be tight between us, Roswell and Goddard for the girls’ side and us, Roswell and Lovington on the boys, but we just have to keep working and make sure we’re ready to perform how we need to perform when the time comes.”