After a disrupted year in 2020, the Wildcats take the court and continue their winning streak
By Renee Ambroso | Photography by John Michael Simpson
East Chapel Hill High School senior Asha Sata is up five games to two in the second set of her tennis match. It’s late afternoon, and the shade creeping over the half-dozen hard courts at ECHHS hasn’t reached hers yet. She toes the baseline and takes a breath, preparing to serve as her opponent from Charles E. Jordan High School waits across the net.
The pair are stuck in a tie as others finish out their matches and trickle off the courts. Asha fights her way through nearly ten deuce points before securing the game and the win. “Good match,” coach Nick Walker says to both players as they flip the scorecards back to zero, offering up a “prize” of Gatorade. Claps and cheers erupt from Asha’s teammates who are watching from behind the chain-link fence.
“That’s just good sportsmanship,” parent Vivian Go says about the passionate verbal support. Vivian’s daughters – high school freshman Sylvia Mast, sophomore Clara Mast and Hamilton College freshman Ingrid Mast – have all been a part of the ECHHS team. “Tennis is such an individual sport … it’s a quiet sport, you know. [The players are] just used to silence except for the sounds of the opponents and an occasional clap.” She says having teammates “really rooting for one another and banding together – it’s the most team-oriented experience that they’ve had in tennis.”
The team has had plenty to cheer about this fall. At press time, the Wildcats had maintained an undefeated status so far – well on their way to matching the performance of their abbreviated 2020 season, in which they were 11-0 and won the Mideast Regional Championships without losing a set.
When school was fully virtual last autumn, the fall tennis season was delayed and condensed, starting in November and lasting only about a month. The spring allowed for a 2 ½ -month season, with masks required at morning practices. “Now we’re back to full swing,” Nick says.
After nearly 35 years of coaching and teaching physical education at various schools in Orange County, Nick had retired in 2011. But he wasn’t finished with coaching just yet. He took over from Lindsey Linker, one of the most successful tennis coaches in the state’s history, who was named conference coach of the year 39 times. Since 2016, the girls team has achieved a 60-6 record, won four conference and three regional titles, and earned two state runner-up team finishes.
The girls junior varisity team, led by coach Elizabeth Heetderks, holds a 7-2 record this season as of press time.
When classes end at 4 p.m. each day, students gather at the school’s courts for practice and get started with a warmup and hitting drills before moving to doubles and then singles practice games. The JV team heads to nearby Cedar Falls Park for practice.
Over the course of the 45- to 60-minute sessions, they work to sharpen skills that don’t take priority when players take lessons or practice during the off-season. Marni Kim, a freshman on the junior varsity team, says, “We learn strategies for doubles – what to do in certain situations, like if you had a really good shot, you should come up to the net.”
Nick says, “As a coach, you’ve got to work on little things that can make the difference in a game or match. We compete a lot, and then we have fun after the match.”
When the team travels by bus to away matches, the ride home often includes a stop at Chick-fil-A for dinner. Junior Mya Tan says, “We usually get home late, but it’s really fun.”
Experiences that foster morale and help the team bond are especially cherished after a not-so-normal year. “We actually got closer together, because [tennis] was the only interaction we were getting amongst our peers,” varsity player Christina Ahn, a senior, says of the spring season. Like Asha’s hard-fought win, players battle out each point on the court alone, but the team is waiting on the sidelines to cheer each other on.