Tennis tradition to transition

By Matt Phelps' email='

Without two big players, tennis needs team play to win

The term dynasty is thrown around a lot when talking about Mercer Island athletics. With the success of programs such as boys basketball, the water polo and swim teams and lacrosse, it is understandable. But one sport, above all others, is the ultimate definition of a dynasty: Girls tennis.

That reputation has earned the program the honor of a selection to the Washington State Hall of Fame. But that word, dynasty, carries a lot of pressure for incoming players.

"Every year I take the girls into the gymnasium to look at the state titles," said Mercer Island girls tennis head coach Joyce Hedlund. "It is always a golden ring that looms in their eyes. They know that they are playing for tradition."

Last season, the Islander girls tennis team went undefeated during the regular season (8-0) and won its 24th state title. But if the team wants to continue the tradition this year, they will have to make changes and play as a team. Lilli Sandler and Stephanie Hammond, who dominated 3A KingCo singles and traded off taking second in state the past two years, have graduated.

"They were definitely a stabilizing force on the team," said Hedlund, who is in her seventh season. "We are really going to have to rely on the depth of the team as a whole for this year a few years to come. It takes more than just two top players to win."

If anyone knows about winning, it is Hedlund. After all, she is the defending 3A KingCo Coach of the Year for girls and boys tennis.

Sandler and Hammond's place will be filled by seniors Liz Oldenburg, Audrey Morton, Taylor Gwinn and Ashley Nield, who have the pressure of continuing the tradition.

"The girls will be very competitive in KingCo, but districts will be tough," said Hedlund. "There is will be a lot more pressure on he girls."

The team will be trading two year-round tennis players for multi-sport athletes.

One of the most talented returning players is Oldenburg, who also played on the girls varsity soccer team during the fall. Oldenburg and Morton teamed together for the first time during last year's district tournament and went on a run that finished with second place at state in doubles.

"We all have been working hard," said Oldenburg. "I worked a lot on strategy and the mental aspects of the game."

Gwinn and Nield finished fifth at the district meet and will be an intricate part of an Islander run this season.

"Taylor is a great leader for this team," said Hedlund. "They all have been working on team spirit and running the JV tournaments while I was out (with back surgery). The rest of the team sees that commitment."

"There is a lot more responsibility this year," said Gwinn. "Joyce is one of my best friends and we need to communicate to the younger girls that the team is a family. We win and lose together."

Although all the girls faired well last year, Hedlund said that they will have to play better this season to win state. Hedlund admitted that the lineup this year will be very fluid and may change from meet to meet in order to find the best lineup for the postseason.

"I think that everybody is up to doing it and they know they have to do their best on their court and not worry about anything else," said Hedlund, who noted that her team will play every 3A KingCo team twice, giving her a good opportunity to tweak her lineup. "But we cannot afford to lose any of our players."

Two players that will have an opportunity for a bigger place this season are Amelia Carpenter and Sheehan Trippel. The sophomores play tennis year round and could be the future.

There is still no problem with depth for the Islanders as 80 girls have signed up for tryouts. A huge freshman class of 33 girls is included in that number. "The spots are there to take," said Hedlund. "But I keep thinking what if we get this honor (hall of fame induction) and then don't win state this year?'"

That was also the worry during the start of Sandler and Hammond's junior years.

Info box Head coach: Joyce Hedlund (six years as girls coach, nine years as boys tennis coach)

Assistant coach: Brett Ogata Key returners: Sr. Liz Oldenburg, Sr. Taylor Gwinn, Sr. Audrey Morton, Sr.

Karli Hagstrom, Sr. Cammie Rudolph, Jr. Andrea Burns and Sr. Ashley Nield.

Last year's record: league, 8-0 (first in state for the 24th time)

Key athletes lost: Lilli Sandler and Stephanie Hammond.

Newcomers to watch: So. Amelia Carpenter and So. Sheehan Trippel.

Key to a good season: Play as a team.

First match: 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 22 vs. Garfield.

Key matches: Yakima Invitational, district tournament.

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