Tennis teams overcome challenges from weather to conference foes

March 27, 2012

By Matt Carstens

Ali O’Daffer, of Skyline High School, chases a volley against Bellevue’s Karen Park on the way to winning the No. 2 singles match 6-1, 6-3. By Lillian Tucker

The high school girls tennis season in Western Washington starts for most youth athletes not on a court made of clay, concrete or grass, but in a gym.

“The girls always get the crappy weather,” Issaquah head coach Shannon Small said.

With most teams only getting a few outdoor practices, preparation time for the players and coaches is short.

“We’ve had probably 14 or 15 practice days,” Liberty High School head coach Mike Salokas said. “And because of weather we’ve been able to be outside probably four. If we were having this interview a few days ago that would have been very different, because you would have asked me who my best players were and I would have told you who could run around the gym floor the most times.”

For teams like Issaquah and Skyline, it’s even tougher when they have opening matches against foes like perennial powerhouse Newport.

“We will meet Newport in the first week, which is not necessarily beneficial to us,” Skyline head coach Bettina Gehle said. “Usually, we play a little bit better at the end of the year, but we can’t change that.”

With brighter weather on the horizon, all three teams look to surprise. As a matter of fact, some already have.

A win for the ages

If history and precedent had anything to say about it, Issaquah would have lost to Newport on March 22.

In fact, as long as Small has been the coach of Issaquah tennis, the Eagles have never beaten Newport, and neither has anyone else.

“Basically, Newport has won KingCo for the six years I’ve been at Issaquah, and all I’ve heard is that they’ve won all the years before that as well,” Small said.

In the past two years, Issaquah has finished second to Newport in conference play, each year by just one match.

With a combination of Newport’s No. 3 singles player having quit and the Issaquah girls all having great matches, the Eagles were able to take the Knights down, 5-2.

“It was pretty huge,” Small said. “The girls were excited, the fans were excited. [Newport] was, to say the least, shocked and awed. They didn’t expect it.”

Small said that the news was so big in the tennis world they were receiving calls from coaches from Las Vegas and California to congratulate them.

“What this means is that if my girls keep their heads on their shoulders, keep working, there is a possibility that we could win KingCo for the first year ever,” Small said.

It also means a season’s worth of pressure not to lose.

“The parents go, ‘How do you feel after you won that match?’” Small said. “I say I feel more pressure than ever because I need to win the rest of the matches.”

Despite losing two seniors, Small is bringing back five seniors, including Seattle University commit Dayna Bennett, who is Small’s No. 1 singles player.

“We’ve got some pretty good kids on this team,” Small said. “We’ll see if their nerves get the best of them.”

The up-and-coming star at Issaquah is freshman Kristin Cheung. Slotted in the three or four spot, Small looks for big things from her this year.

“She’s got a little bit of the freshman nerves, but we’ll see where she is at the end of the season,” Small said.

Small said she tries to coach her team with firm style with an emphasis on conditioning.

“I make the girls work hard but try to do it with a sense of humor,” Small said.

“They may not agree with that,” she said with a laugh. “They might not think I’m funny at all. They might think I’m some mean tyrant, I don’t know.”

Mentally tough

For a very talented, young Skyline squad of players, believing in themselves will be what coach Gehle will emphasize this season.

We have “very, very new players,” Gehle said. “Lots of talent and hopefully we will see how strong they are mentally. That is probably the toughest part — to see how mentally strong they are on the court.”

Despite their youth, Gehle said she wouldn’t be shocked if her team members surprised the league.

“It will probably be a building year, but I can see how we could surprise some teams with our strength,” she said. “I have some experienced players that can help the younger players. We have a pretty good mix. We have a lot of juniors as well as a couple seniors, but mostly freshmen.”

The mental side of tennis is a big part of Gehle’s coaching philosophy. She said that if a player isn’t strong mentally, it could get in the way of a player’s natural skills.

“You need to be in a way very confident when you are new and young and playing high school varsity,” she said. “You are usually a little bit more nervous and mentally that is not very beneficial to your skills. So we are working on that quite a bit, on the mental part this year. We will see how well they perform, how they can apply their skills in the match situations. They have some of those skills in practice, but we’ll see how those translate to the matches.”

Gehle sees Newport and Woodinville as forces in the league this year, and while she always has high expectations for her team, she emphasizes her team must get over their freshman jitters if they expect to compete with the elite teams.

Exciting time for Liberty

According to Salokas, most of his students’ tennis racquets only see the light of day during the tennis season.

“Our Liberty kids play other sports and are involved in a tremendous amount of activity,” Salokas said. “So for most of them, the day of the first practice they take their racquets out of their closet, and then after our awards banquet when the tournaments are complete, the racquets go back in the closets. Not with all of them, but with most of them.”

This year is an exception for Salokas, who has several players that play competitively year round.

“This year, I’m happy to say I have probably four or five maybe even six players that actually play tennis more than just in our regular season,” he said. “And for me this is exciting.”

Some of Salokas’ key players this year include sophomore Jenny Adams, freshman Sady Demme and junior Kristey Broanston. Adams played last year.

“She was one of the players I knew was going to be an up-and-comer last year, so I had her compete in the KingCo tournament,” Salokas said. “I think that experience really helped Jenny in the off-season, because competing against the better players in our league gave her a chance to see not only where she was last year, but what she needed to do to prepare for this year.”

Salokas said he is thrilled with how Adams has come into camp this year and he has given her the No. 1 position on the team.

Demme is one of the rare freshmen on the Liberty squad who has played competitively prior to high school.

“It is great to have someone as a freshman who is familiar with the game of tennis,” Salokas said. “She has pretty solid groundstrokes, and knows the game. I’m elated with having Sady on our team this year.”

Demme and Adams, along with Broanston, will form the core of a team that Salokas said he has much higher expectations of than his teams in previous years.

“I think since we have three good players, they’re going to be able to challenge each other,” he said, “obviously at practice every day and when we play our matches, and that’s a situation where I haven’t had that luxury in the past.”

Matt Carstens: 392-6434, ext. 236, or ip-sports@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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