DUBLIN — Ten years ago, the celebration around the West Bladen High tennis courts was the lone victory in then Lady Knights’ first-ever season.
A lot has changed since then.
“We had a lot of young, inexperienced girls playing back then,” said coach Jeff Atkinson, who has headed up the program from the start. “Most of them, maybe all of them, were using recreational rackets.”
The program got off to a good start when 30 players tried out for that first team. Atkinson said he kept 12 — and then began the task of teaching, not coaching.
“They all had a lot to learn,” he said. “From how to serve, how to volley and even about the rules. It was slow going.”
But perseverance soon began to pay off. By the 2010 season, a solid core of players began to take shape. And in 2011, the Lady Knights set a school record for wins with six. They broke that record in 2012 with nine. On Tuesday, the Lady Knights improved to 8-3 overall and 6-2 in the Four County Conference this season. The conference tournament looms next week in Clinton.
“The last few years we’ve really seen a lot of improvement,” Atkinson said. “Especially over the past two seasons — players like Erica Tanner, Robin Coleman and Lexi Storms really got us on a path of success.”
That path has continued on with the next wave of players, led by the team’s lone senior, Josie Ludlum, who has played through all four years of high school.
“I gave up volleyball to play tennis because I wanted to try something different,” said Ludlum, the team’s No. 1 singles player who finished the regular season woith an 8-3 record. “And I’m really glad I did. I’ve learned a lot — especially the mental part of it, as well as the patience it takes. And Coach Jeff has helped so much.”
Junior Alicia Avellaneda, who is a perfect 11-0 this season at No. 2 singles, is probably the team’s most vocal leader and seems poised to take over the leadership role next season. She gave up a spot on the varsity cheerleading squad to start playing tennis three years ago.
“I’m proud to be a part of a team that broke school records for wins,” she said. “And I can’t wait to play No. 1 singles next year for West Bladen. Hopefully we can keep all this going.”
Avellaneda, who said she hopes to earn a college scholarship for tennis, said her game has improved immensely.
“Coach has been a lot of help,” she said. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am now.”
But Atkinson said the big reasons for the turnaround in girls tennis is the hard work put in by the players and “just playing.”
“Once they get here and start learning, I can see them get hooked,” Atkinson said.
Going forward, Lady Knights tennis appears to be on solid footing. With Ludlum being the only graduating player, Atkinson will be able to look forward to next season with, along with Avellaneda, current juniors Madison Staton and Tatianna Sturgis leading the way. In addition, two current freshmen — Alanna Ludlum and Amber Long — are already contributing heavily to the Lady Knights’ efforts this season.
“The talent level should continue, but there’s really no way to tell what we have coming down the road,” Atkinson said.
And therein lies the potential pothole.
“We get so many kids that are pure raw as far as tennis goes, because there are no feeder programs for us,” Atkinson said. “If we can get the kids started quicker with a middle-school program and summer rec program, that would help us get to the next level.”
Short of that, Atkinson said there’s one sure way for the Lady Knights tennis program to keep moving forward: “When the season ends, the girls need to just keep playing.”