The 2019 Ellsworth boys' tennis season was an uncertainty four months ago.
In January, Ellsworth Athletic Director Ann Huppert called the Panthers' coach-less, returning players to Ellsworth High School's office to discuss the unresolved future of their program.
"I was super nervous," said Ellsworth senior Adam Johnson. "We were writing out names on paper hoping we had enough kids who would want to go out."
Four months later and the Panthers' undoubtable growth under their new coaches, Jim and Mary Rumpel, has warranted the continuation of the Ellsworth tennis program.
"It's been tremendous how much we've improved, honestly," Johnson said. "In the past it was more of, obviously you always want to win, but we were usually just out here trying our hardest, not expecting to come out and win at all."
The Rumpels agreed to take over the Panthers' team this spring when the fate of the program relied on a coach's willingness to spend their spring in Summit Park at the Ellsworth tennis courts.
"They were struggling to find a coach, and I love tennis," Mary said. "Since my husband was willing to volunteer and help me out, I was like, great, this will be a fun adventure together."
But it's not as if the Panthers found two random, tennis amateurs to coach their team. Anyone familiar with the history of Wisconsin tennis knows how lucky the Panthers were to not only continue their program but to also do so with two coaches who have a long history with their sport.
Jim Rumpel was inducted into the Wisconsin Tennis Hall of Fame in 2016 after a successful career as the Baldwin-Woodville girls' tennis coach, and Mary has been alongside him for the entire ride.
"I do the paperwork, and he does the teaching," Mary said.
Johnson knew the transition to his new coaches would be seamless when he remembered the name of Baldwin-Woodville's tennis courts.
"I was super excited," Johnson said. "When you walk in with a different coach, you don't know what to expect right away. But I had seen Mr. Rumpel before up at previous tournaments in Baldwin. (Baldwin-Woodville's courts) are even named Rumpel Courts, I think. So, obviously it made us feel good."
Together, the Rumpels and the Panthers have shown undeniable improvement in their short time together that even those who don't cheer for Ellsworth will admit to.
"We played Ellsworth early in the season and I had already seen it then," said New Richmond head coach Denise Devereux. "Even early in the season, the Ellsworth players were already so much more consistent and focused than they had ever been. After seeing how well they were doing, we called it 'The Rumpel Effect'."
But "The Rumpel Effect" didn't start with a stern approach to getting the Panthers ready for the season, which Johnson appreciated.
"On the first day they told us there were no dumb questions," Johnson said. "Jim said, 'Ask me any question you want,' and that was really awesome to have it start out like that."
"People don't come in knowing tennis in Western Wisconsin," Mary said. "But my husband loves that. He loves teaching and watching them grow."
"They've been great additions to the family," Johnson said, "and we're just always having fun and smiling."
However, the Rumpels have brought more than a rekindled love for tennis to the Panther squad. Jim and Mary have allowed the Panthers to realize that they are capable of competing in every match they face.
"Last year I remember sitting there and you couldn't even try anything," Johnson said. "You'd just get cooked every time. Because of that, I thought Lake City would be my best chance at winning a match this season."
After a season with the Rumpels, Johnson has new plans for his team's postseason.
"My first goal is to get at least to the second round of sub-sectionals," Johnson said. "Throughout that tournament I've always just wanted to win my first match and get to the second one. Usually we all end up at the bracket, because we all love tennis but we're newer to the sport and not that great. I'm really excited for this year, because I think there are a lot of us who have opportunities to climb up that board."
The Rumpels are in full agreement that with a boost in confidence, Johnson's redefined goal can become a reality.
"I think they've really shown signs of not only understanding how to hit the ball, but also where to be on the court," Rumpel said. "They're not in no-man's land a lot. The doubles are learning how to move and be in the right place.
"Yes, we're learning, but they need to go out and expect to do well. They've learned enough now, and that's a big hump we have to get over."
The Panthers claimed their first team win against Osceola on Thursday, May 9, and are peaking at an opportune time with the Middle Border Conference tournament and the postseason around the corner. But even if the No. 3 singles player's goal of going far in sub-sectionals doesn't pan out, Johnson will be able to leave Ellsworth High School knowing he and his team helped keep tennis alive in his community.
"I just want to keep tennis a happy sport in Ellsworth," Johnson said. "You obviously want to win and do well, but after I win a match, I always just say, 'Thanks for playing.'"
That's enough for the Rumpels.
"I'm just really proud of these kids - I really am," Mary said. "They're up against an uphill battle, and they're doing great."
Thursday, May 9: Ellsworth 4, Osceola 3
No. 1 - Nolan Claassen def. Leo Bergner 3-6, 6-4, 6-2
No. 2 - Liam Moore def. Brayden Thomas 6-1, 6-0
No. 3 - Ellsworth won by forfeit
No. 4 - Ellsworth won by forfeit
No. 1 - Hahns Huebsch and Jedidiah Durand def. Louis Gromaire and Lucas Flom 6-3, 6-3
No. 2 - Zeke Lowney and Colin Krentz def. Brevin Bundy and Connor Price 7-6 (5), 0-6, 6-4
No. 3 - Adam Johnson and Jack Janke def. Travis Jennings and Jackson Dvorak 6-0, 2-6, 6-2