An experienced returning core gave R-MA Middle School Tennis Coach Howard Walters what he needed to build a strong tennis team this year. Still, he had no reason to expect the team to go undefeated and sweep both the season and tournament championship titles in the Valley Middle School Conference.
In some ways, this year was no different than others–Coach Walters had to teach the basics to many of the student-athletes, everything from the lines on the court and how to score, to hand-eye coordination and court etiquette and presence. “Once we learned the core basics, then it’s a matter of learning to play tennis,” he said. “And that’s just a matter of rote learning, muscle memory. All I do is take some talent and some athleticism, and I just build on it.”
Coach Walters noted that while St. Joe’s from Martinsburg, WV, had won the championship the last four years, they were not as strong this year. Meanwhile, Sacred Heart Academy and Chelsea Academy were tough to beat.
“When we beat St. Joe’s at their place, I thought, ‘Oh! We might have a decent season this year,’” he said. “We’d already beat Sacred Heart and Chelsea once.”
The athletes felt the same way. They had been worried about having good players–so much so that Jiseong Choi ‘23 and Sheila Xu ‘24 had spent the pre-season constantly promoting tennis to their classmates, trying to grow the team. That resulted in some new players with very little knowledge of the game. “This year, at first, people weren’t that good and we were worried,” confessed Sheila, whose ranking varied from three to five during the season. “But then people worked really hard and they improved a lot.” After they had beaten every team in the conference one time, the young Yellow Jackets began to recognize the team’s potential.
Once R-MA had defeated each of the other conference teams once, the matches became a coach’s game. Normally, the strongest player plays at position one, the second at two, etc. With R-MA being the team to beat, the coaches in the conference began playing with their line-ups to try to figure out a way to win. The Yellow Jackets’ perfect team record, however, wasn’t threatened by the changes in line-ups on other teams. It was the weather that almost did them in.
The Yellow Jackets had defeated Sacred Heart 5-2 at home the first time the two teams played, but the second time, as they were heading to Winchester, it rained, forcing the match indoors. “My kids had never played inside,” said Coach Walters. “Now you play tennis inside, it’s a whole different dynamic. There’s no wind to affect the shot and the ball travels differently inside. So my kids didn’t know how to play on the court.” The R-MA team won three of the five singles matches, and only had to win one doubles to take the overall match. The first doubles team lost, bringing it down to the number two doubles team: team co-captain Henry Scott ‘23 and Sam Chen ‘23.
It’s important to note at this point that the two pairs had previously played in an exhibition match, which only goes to four points. A regular match goes to six. From across the court, Coach Walters watched his final doubles team. As Henry came off the court, his posture dejected, Coach Walters asked the score. “4-2,” Henry replied. “No!” exclaimed Coach Walters. “The match isn’t over!” The players returned to the court, reinvigorated, and won their match 7-5, giving R-MA the overall victory by a score of 4-3.
The Yellow Jackets continued to work hard throughout the season, playing tennis with each other or other students during their free time, and the extra practice reflected in their skills set. That continued improvement enabled them to roll through victory after victory, ending with the championship game in which they defeated Chelsea Academy on May 2, 2019.
Even a few days later, the players were still excited over the title. “It was the first tennis championship in my three years here,” said Henry. He also noted that it was his first time being on a championship team.
Perhaps more important than the championship, however, is the joy the students found in the game. “Since it’s our last season [in middle school], I was really trying to have fun with my friends and enjoy the sport,” said Jiseong Choi ‘23, who played at the number one seed and served as one of the captains of the team.
“Before, my dad made me do tennis, so I was kind of forced,” said Sheila. “This season, we just actually enjoyed it and we spent our free time to practice. So I’m more interested in tennis now.”