In the sports world, two words don’t usually walk hand in hand, “team” and “tennis.” Casual observers wouldn’t think so, but at Walton High School in East Cobb, the girls tennis team is the ultimate team sport. The roster is blessed with a seemingly endless number of key players, literally and figuratively. Oh, and in the measure of wins versus losses, Walton happens to be the best team Georgia high school athletics has ever seen.
On Thursday afternoon, the girls tennis team defeated visiting Woodstock for their 135th match victory in a row. No team in the state in any sport, gender, classification or combination of the three has won as many consecutive competitions. Again, this team has won every match since the 2003 state quarterfinals, including region and state playoffs. No losses. That’s seven straight undefeated seasons and state championships. When the Lady Raiders happen to occasionally lose a set, it’s almost as if Harry Potter were directing the ball with his wand, in favor of the underdog opponent, from somewhere beyond the baseline.
While all the wins are impressive, it’s actually the means that justify the results. The East Cobb area, like many Atlanta suburbs, is mad for tennis. Elite academies pepper the local kids with instruction and hitting sessions all year long. The tennis incubator is so rich, these kids literally don’t need to play for their high school. They embrace the idea of collecting their talent for the prep season. Two of the best current American professional players grew up in the Walton zip codes: Robby Ginepri, has two wins on the ATP tour and played for Walton’s neighbor/rival Wheeler, and Melanie Oudin, currently ranked as the 43rd best female tennis player in the world, are East Cobbers.
But, it is the community that fosters the success of this Lady Raider team. These girls practice with their high school team daily in the season, and put their more structured Juniors tennis schedule on hold for the spring. The Walton players don’t need letter jackets or school trophies for validation. So the obvious question is, “Why bother?”
The answer circles back to the keys to building any successful high school team: unselfish athletes, coaching and community.
Stephanie Falcon, one of five Lady Raider seniors signed to play scholarship college tennis next fall, won the No. 3 singles match in very short order. She will play at UNC-Greensboro next year. Her quick victory earned her the privilege to be the first player/spectator with a racquet. When asked about the importance of playing for her high school versus playing junior tennis, she responded, “Walton comes first for us. We’re a team. Playing some junior tournaments this spring won’t make us or break us (as individuals).”
Elizabeth Kilborn agrees. Kilborn was playing collegiate tennis at Clemson on Wednesday night. The 2010 All-ACC Academic team honoree then made it back to Georgia Tech for classes Thursday, then practice, then scooted to her high school alma mater to witness Georgia prep sports history. Kilborn was good enough to go 116-0 at Walton and was named a 2009 All-American.
Her take on the team aspect is obvious. “I learned here to be a team player in an individual sport,” she said. “You learn to put others in front of yourself.”
Girls head coach Roberta Manheim is the architect/perpetuator of the streak. She coaches the girls weekdays and balances the expertise they receive off campus.
“The girls give up so much (of their personal goals) to be a part of this team,” said Mannheim after the record-setting match. “They work their drills around being a part of this. They recognize that this is a team sport. This is an important part of their senior year. There are no ‘me-mes’ here on this team.”
Of course, the players and coach need the support of this borderline tennis-obsessed community. But don’t fret: the community has more than got their back. A cross-section of Walton students gathered in the bleachers in support the team and to watch the match that made history. After an early, emphatic point made by No. 1 singles player and future Alabama player, Emilly Zabor, Manheim quickly quieted the enthusiastic student section. Parents of past players also gathered to witness and show their support. Further back in the gallery, teachers, administrators and boosters of all Walton sports, enjoyed the match. Business leaders from the area were well represented by the sponsorship banners that frame the courts’ fences.
The girl’s “other” or junior coaches were also present in spirit, if not body. They were busy teaching the next four-year generation of Raider greats, but they too are fully vested in the tradition of excellence.
Walton athletic administrator Lisa Sager noted, “We are so lucky those coaches help the whole dynamic of our program. They’re great. Most high schools don’t have lights on their courts. We do because of guys like Jeff Mason and TAG Tennis. They are responsible for our lights.”
The girls themselves give back, too. Several years ago team members dreamed up the idea of a “pink” event for cancer research. Last year, they raised over $2,300. Next week, the Lady Raiders will play next door neighbor Pope and once again raise money for cancer research. These kids know: community works both ways.
The Walton girls team will continue their amazing streak in 2011. And, if they happen to ever actually lose on the court anytime soon, a more than capable support structure is close by. Georgia’s best high school team ever is bigger than the individuals. It’s as big as the entire community.