Skip to main content

The City Journals

Hillcrest girls’ tennis resilient, even in uncertainty

Sep 14, 2020 03:28PM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High tennis players practice serving in the August afternoon heat before their first matches. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Hillcrest High seniors April Maxwell and Sydney Russell admit they didn’t have much experience when they tried out for tennis as freshmen. 

They wanted to play alongside some friends and were happy when they made it. Little did they know then that they, along with senior Annie Blake, would be amongst the resilient four-year veterans who would be leading the team this season.

Resiliency has become part of the team since their freshman year when Hillcrest’s tennis courts were torn up as part of the construction of a new school on campus. Resilency in the fact that every practice they split the team in half— part of it practicing at Mountain View Park and part at Antczak Park, where some courts are unusable—and the team is limited in number by how few—five—courts they have to use instead of the typical eight courts at a high school. Resilency as every match and tournament is away since Hillcrest doesn’t have its own courts to and knowing few classmates will travel to watch their matches.

And now, they, like many athletes, they’re being tested in resiliency while playing during COVID-19. They undergo daily health checks and maintain social distance, and don’t share tennis balls. To ensure the student-athletes’ health and safety, they canceled their annual mid-September participation in the St. George tournament, which doubles as a team-bonding opportunity, and didn’t hold a younger girls’ skills camp, which typically helps to bring enthusiasm to the sport and build the program.

This season, their fans, in masks, will watch spread out around the court. Their coaches wear masks during practices and will during their matches.

“I can’t get sick,” head coach Robert James said. “I can’t get my family sick.”

Maxwell tries to stay upbeat.

“We try to stay focused, stay positive,” she said. “It’s frustrating and hard having all the challenges, but we want to play.”

Maxwell played singles her freshman year and played doubles with Lizzy Hamilton the past two seasons. They went undefeated during their sophomore season in JV and were 6A region 2 champs, but they lost in a tie-breaker in post-region. Hamilton opted not to return this year.

Russell plays singles. She played both JV and varsity her freshman year and then finished second in region as a varsity player her sophomore year and competed at state. Last year, she played well, but didn’t advance to state.

“We changed regions,” she said. “We are now in a tough region. Players at Skyline and Olympus have played since birth.”

Her coach added in East to that mix of high schools and changed the age to 3—but agrees 5A region 6 is a tough region.

“Half of our girls haven’t played before high school so they’re looking at getting better, but it’s more social,” he said. “We don’t have the money—lessons are expensive and club fees are high—and maybe the time and for some, the desire, to be at their level.”

Hillcrest, which won both years in their previous region, now competes with teams like Murray and Cottonwood in the current region. 

Emily Zhang, who graduated this past spring after playing on the team, hit balls with former teammates this summer. 

“It’s a loaded region; there’s many state contenders,” she said. “This year, our team is looking strong with some good returning players and a strong senior class. Sownya Paritala, who now is a sophomore, will likely be our No. 1 singles player.”

Paritala’s dad, as well as Chris and Creighton Chung, are assisting James in coaching and helping the team, which includes eight returning varsity letter athletes.

James, who started hitting tennis balls against a wall for hours every day starting at age 8 or 9, went to state all three years of his high school career. He’s now in his sixth year coaching the Huskies.

“Coach James is chill. He has an encouraging attitude and says: ‘as long as you’re here, you’re going to play hard and have fun,’” Zhang said.

That’s the approach Russell takes.

“It’s a fun sport to play and get out there to release some stress. I just take it all out on the ball,” she said. “We used the off-season to condition and practice to improve.”

Some non-region matches are still being set up since things were on hold with the initial cancellation of high school sports during COVID-19, James said. As of press deadline, three non-region matches were scheduled for a total of 10 matches. The season, which was slated to begin mid-August, typically concludes by late September.

“We may not have all 14 matches, but we have a great team. They all get along, put each other and the team first. This is perfect weather for tennis and they love the sport, love being part of a group, love each other. They’re excellent students and know school comes first,” James said.

In fact, Hillcrest typically has one of the highest, if not the highest, GPA in the state, with a 3.8 or 3.9 overall GPA, he said.

The seniors are hoping to continue with team bonding, although team dinners, community service and social events may be limited or take on a new look with the pandemic. 

“We’re all good friends,” Maxwell said. “It’s a little harder to begin this season with COVID, and our practices and tryouts are in shifts so we keep space and social distancing, but our goals are there to get to know each other better, play better and cheer and support one another.”

Already, the seniors have selected their new black uniform with a simple logo and Hillcrest Husky, as part of their desire to get back to the basics.

“We’ll go over the basics and get mentally ready,” Russell said. “I’m definitely glad we get to play.”