HHS’ J.J. Mercer looking to leave behind a legacy
HUNTINGTON — J.J. Mercer isn’t likely to feel many nerves when he takes the court Thursday to start his quest toward a fourth consecutive Class AAA boys No. 1 singles tennis state title.
It isn’t just about the Huntington High senior’s comfort level in becoming the state’s most dominant tennis player over the previous three trips to Charleston, either.
Actually, it started well before his dominance when Mercer was a young boy going to the Schoenbaum Tennis Courts with his parents, John and Laurie Mercer, whom have both served as head coach for Marshall University women’s tennis while also mentoring many of the young tennis stars in the Tri-State area for years.
Truth be told, the first time Mercer ever stepped on the courts at Schoenbaum, he likely had a baseball bat instead of a tennis racket in his hands. The bat was for hitting tennis balls during rain delays, which kept him occupied.
Once tennis action resumed, however, Mercer watched Huntington High’s successful run of dominant boys No. 1 players such as Robert Skolik and Hunter Tubert.
Most importantly, Mercer also watched his sister, Cassie, set the family standard with four consecutive No. 1 singles and doubles titles. Now, it is Mercer himself looking to solidify his legacy on West Virginia’s state tennis scene.
“It was definitely huge getting to see all that unfold (for Cassie),“Mercer said. “I just have to take it one match at a time and play my game. I can’t let the outside things get to me—just focus on what I’ve got to do. Many of the people I play are the same guys that I’ve played since my freshman year, so I know what I’m getting into.”
If Mercer plays his game, Saturday could feature a sendoff celebration for one of the state’s more decorated players in recent history. Mercer comes into the tournament with a career 76-0 singles record. He only has three career blemishes in doubles play, as well.
Having the chance to go out undefeated as a four-year champion might be the ultimate goal for many players, but Mercer said the team aspect is just as important to him this season as he takes the court in Charleston for the final time.
Mercer is the veteran on a Huntington High team full of freshmen and sophomores, so he wants those young players to soak in every minute of the experience, just as he has over his time. And make no mistake, Mercer wants to win titles in both singles and doubles with partner Will Touma, who is the younger brother of Joseph Touma that he played with early in his career.
When asked about great matches that he recalled in his career, Mercer mentioned a doubles match his freshman year with partner Grant Subik in the state championship when they got revenge for a regular-season loss by taking the title in front of everyone.
“That was probably the best match I’ve ever been a part of, playing-wise,” Mercer said.
With Will Touma being a freshman, Mercer wants to duplicate that experience for him while also giving his young Huntington High teammates a memorable weekend as his career comes to a close.
“This is the youngest team we’ve had in some time,” Mercer said. “Playing with Will, we are just having so much fun. I’m honestly going out there and playing my best so that he can experience some of the things I have. The pressure is not as much on me, but it’s just trying to win for him so that we can look back in how many ever years and say we did it and we had fun.”
There are several impressive streaks on the line this week for Mercer. First, the sibling connection in which J.J. and sister Cassie have never lost a state tourney singles match on the courts in Charleston.
Then, there is also the lengthy Huntington High boys No. 1 singles streak, a current eight-year run that could become nine if Mercer completes his journey this weekend. The streak started in 2011 when Skolik won the No. 1 title. Tubert came on following that and won four straight without losing a single match during his career and Mercer is attempting the same.
In itself, that type of streak gives Mercer a mental edge as play gets started Thursday.
“I think there’s definitely an attitude and swagger you have to carry yourself with,” Mercer said.
“Every athlete that walks out there—tennis court, basketball court, football field—they have full confidence in the work that they’ve put in. They believe that if they execute to their ability, they will win. I try to carry that swagger with me so I can give myself every advantage, even before a ball is ever hit.”
That success and swagger isn’t the only symmetry between Tubert and Mercer, either. Tubert is currently finishing his career at Ohio State, a program Mercer will join upon graduation from Huntington High. It is a friendship Mercer said was crucial in his success and his commitment to the Buckeyes.
“I was probably 13 when he was a senior, but he would go out and practice with me every day,” Mercer said. “He was great to me. We’d hang out on the side, play video games and do everything together. He’s set the standard and hopefully, I did a good job coming in and taking that over.”
With Mercer’s final opportunity to leave a legacy on the horizon, he said 2019 brings a different dynamic that has him focused on leaving Huntington High better for its future, which includes his younger brother A.J.
“It’s a different experience, for sure,” Mercer said. “I’ve already made a lot of memories and won a lot of championships. I want to set it for my brother and be that person to lead him and my teammates on and show them what it takes.”
The 2019 West Virginia State Tennis Tournament opens Thursday with two venues: Schoenbaum Tennis Courts (Class AAA) and Coonskin Park (Class AA-A).