There’s a different kind of standard when stepping on the tennis court as a member of the Mercer Island girls tennis varsity team.
Expectations are higher and competition among team members is more fierce when representing a program that has won 32 Washington state championships, the most championships of any prep sports program in state history.
In many ways, Mercer Island had a successful season in 2016. The Islanders boasted the 3A state doubles champions in Caroline Hamilton and Sammy Sweet and placed second as a team at the 3A state tournament.
But the runner-up finish marked the end of a seven-year Mercer Island title reign as a team, with KingCo 2A/3A conference rivals the Interlake Saints unseating the Islanders for the 3A state championship.
The Saints also handed the Islanders their first KingCo league loss in nine years last season, defeating Mercer Island 4-3 last March at Mercer Island High School.
In the early days of the 2017 season, Mercer Island coach Carol Gullstad said she’s noticed a bit of a change among the players on her team. She mentioned last season’s conference loss to the Saints as a source of motivation for her athletes to take a different approach to beginning their 2017 campaign.
“I think people came into this season as a result of that [Interlake loss] thinking, ‘We gotta be on our game right away. We can’t afford to think that we always win,’” said Gullstad, who’s entering her second year as head coach and fifth year with the program. “That was a surprise. I think more of the players feel ownership for that. I really like what I’m seeing on the team this year. They’re very attentive, they’re serious. There is really good teamwork.”
Mercer Island graduated three of its four state tournament qualifiers from last season, but return senior Chloe Gage, who along with doubles partner Fiona Brasfield, placed sixth at last year’s state tournament. Gage, who primarily played doubles for the Islanders last season, said she’s aiming for a return trip to state this year.
“I definitely believe that we have a wide range of talent on the team,” Gage said of her team’s strengths. “The top part of our ladder is very strong and the bottom half of the ladder definitely has skill and ability.”
Also returning is senior Kimia Preston, a four-year varsity member who has primarily competed in singles competition for the Islanders throughout her high school career. Last spring, Preston advanced out of the first round of the KingCo tournament in a loaded singles bracket. This year, she hopes to make it to the Tri-Cities and qualify for the state tournament.
“We are really focusing on motivating everyone to really want to push themselves this year,” Preston said. “This is one of the first years where girls who don’t play year-round tennis are able to have an opportunity to play varsity tennis and there’s a lot of raw potential. I think with these girls getting to play with the upper-level girls, they’re gonna start to shine a lot more. I think our team will really improve by the end of the season.”
Gullstad said the Islanders are still determining which players will compete in the team’s top singles and doubles positions. She added that she expects to rely on big seasons from fellow varsity returners Grace Bethards and Caroline Harkins.
Last season, the Islanders found themselves in close matches with both Interlake and the Bellevue Wolverines, the latter whom Mercer Island defeated 4-3 last May.
Gullstad said her team expects more competitive matches with both opponents this year, with the outcome of both meets likely having league title implications. The Islanders will host Bellevue at 3:45 p.m. on April 25 at MIHS.
Gullstad said a KingCo league title “feels like anyone’s to take,” but added she believes the Islanders are definitely in the running. Still, year in and year out, winning a state championship is the goal for the decorated girls tennis program. Gullstad said playing in a league with such high-level competition only helps Mercer Island’s cause come postseason.
“When we get to state, we’ve played the best players already,” Gullstad said. “I do think it’s an advantage. It keeps us sharp and it keeps us motivated because you know you can’t slack off. You’ve gotta hit it hard and intensely every day if you want to win.”