By Rick Nolte, Sports Editor
PORT CHARLOTTE — A year ago, the game of tennis dizzied JP Coogan like he’d been smacked in the chops with a racket.
After knowing few setbacks as a competitive player, Coogan was welcomed to life as a team’s No. 1 in his sophomore season at Port Charlotte High School.
“Number one slot in Florida tennis can be humbling the first time for even the most experienced player,” Port Charlotte coach Scott Toney said.
You’d get no argument from Coogan. After success at No. 3 as a freshman in 2014, Toney sent Coogan out at No. 1 in 2015.
“It was discouraging,” said Coogan, who only won three times. “After winning as a freshman it was tough. It hurt most not helping the team.”
Discouraged he was, but defeated — psychologically, at least — he wasn’t.
Coogan came back this year in the No. 2 slot behind senior Parker Murno, his doubles partner, and posted a 5-2 record for the Pirates to head the Sun’s All-Area boys tennis team as player of the year. Coogan and Munro teamed to go 5-2 in doubles.
“He handled last year really well,” Toney said. “He worked hard on bringing his game up and keeping a positive attitude and it showed.”
The coach said Coogan possesses a solid physical game all the way around.
“A lot of natural tennis ability,” Toney said.
Being mentally tough as well allowed Coogan to flourish this season after last year’s struggles.
“I learned a lot about myself (from 2015),” the player said.
It didn’t take long for coach and player to see how the course of 2016 might transpire after the struggles of the previous season.
The Pirates opened the season against Venice, perennial district kingpins along with Fort Myers. The Indians are solid throughout the lineup, stellar at the top.
Coogan faced senior Danny Manieri in his match, and although he lost, he was competitive from first serve to final point.
“I knew going in he was a lot better than me, but I was able to hold my own,” Coogan said. “It was encouraging after last year.”
Said Toney: “He lost, but he wasn’t dismissed like he had been a lot of times (as a sophomore). I think something turned in him. He really believed in himself again after that match.”
Consistency proved to be a key component of Coogan’s game this season. Being a year older and wiser were cornerstones of that improvement.
Coogan’s serve and strokes had more pace and he was thinking his way through a match as much or more than simply reacting to his opponent.
“I developed more strategy and was able to make adjustments easier,” he said. “I think a lot of it was me growing as a player.”
Toney pointed to Coogan’s focus.
“He was thinking more like a tennis player,” the coach said. “Where he wants to direct the point and how he wants the game to go. His game matured a lot this year.”
Enter Venice and Manieri with a yardstick. The two met again in the district tournament.
Although the outcome was the same, it wasn’t a two-set victory void of suspense. Coogan was one point away from the biggest win of his tennis career.
The two split sets and Coogan was up 9-6 in the 10-point tiebreaker before Manieri took five straight points for a 11-9 win.
“It wasn’t off my errors,” Coogan said of Manieri’s late flourish. “He just played well. (Match) was encouraging. I could’ve beaten a player way above my level.”
Coogan matched his tennis successes this year with others in the classroom. Under the school’s weighted grading system, he posted the highest grade point average among Port Charlotte underclassmen for 2015-16, “about 4.5, I think,” the student-athlete said.
Toney sees both the sides of the “student-athlete” since he also had Coogan in his advanced U.S. history class this year.
“A truly bright student with a great future,” the teacher-coach said.
Coogan spent last summer working in China as part of an internship, and he will visit Peru this year with family. He counts calculus as his favorite subject, but is particularly fond of debate, and is president of the Model UN program.
“I think it’s one of the most intellectual gifts people have to construct arguments and debate ideas,” said Coogan, who is still mulling a college choice where he’ll definitely study economics.
There will be no debate who will be the Pirates leader in tennis in 2017. With seniors all around him in this year’s lineup, Coogan will return to No. 1.
It will be a far different player in that position next spring than the one who occupied it two seasons prior.
“What he did this season after his sophomore year spoke volumes,” Toney said. “He matured as a total player. It’s nice to have him another year.”
Charlotte • Junior
Made the All-Area team for the second straight year after going 4-4 in his first season as the Tarpons’ No. 1 player.
Lemon Bay • Junior
Played No. 1 all season for the Manta Rays, compiling a 5-6 singles record as he advanced to the district semifinals.
Port Charlotte • Senior
Alternating the No. 1 spot with player-of-the-year teammate JP Coogan, Murno went 3-4 in singles and 5-2 in doubles, advancing to the district semifinals.
North Port • Junior
Earned All-Area honors for a second straight season with a solid campaign as the Bobcats’ No. 1 player.
Charlotte: Jared Bivens
Lemon Bay: Erik Johansen
North Port: Ryan Botelho
All-Area team capsules by Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports.