By John Goralski
Critics watched with amused skepticism as the sophomore-heavy Lady Knights scored a couple of upsets last spring. They may have skoffed at the 15-3 regular season, but their doubts were quickly quieted.
A resounding win over a lower seed was followed by a mild upset in the second round of the brackets. Southington’s Cinderella run rallied into the Class L quarterfinals, and it took the state’s top team to finally stop them.
The spotlight had settled on the up-and-coming team, but the Lady Knights were just getting started.
It carried over into the off-season as the girls continued to battle through the summer and the winter. Even their coach joined the fray as a member of a doubles tandem in regional tournaments.
Last year was the best season in program history. This year, they will prove that it was just the beginning.
“The girls really came together. We had a good schedule, and we had a good run,” said Lady Knight tennis coach Robin Thompson. “They saw what it did to put in all that time and effort, and it carried into this off-season. We had even more girls playing over the winter, and I really hope that the bug is catching on.”
The Knights return all their singles players. They return all but one of their doubles teams. The team welcomed another strong group of underclassmen, and the breakout sophomores are now a strong junior class.
The Knights are ready to prove themselves again, and Thompson has embraced the challenge.
“I spoke to the juniors a lot about expectations. We need them to perform, and hopefully they’ll rise to the occasion,” said the coach. “We’ve got a mixture of experience and some girls playing without much experience, so it’s kind of a mixed bag.”
Do not let her fool you. Thompson returns more depth than ever. She has six players battling for a singles position, and a host of qualified players fighting for the top 10 spots. Susan Murphy is the only senior on the team. Juniors Alex Barmore, Cassidy Race, and Rianna Susco have all proven themselves in varsity competition. Sophomores Catie Wormer and Angela Balaoing proved themselves as freshman last year, and both are in the mix for the coveted spots as singles players.
With six players competing for four spots, it gives Thompson a lot of flexibility with her opening day roster. Liz Costello returns as a top doubles contender, and she’ll be joined by at least two of the singles hopefuls.
“We’re still trying to find the right combinations for doubles, and that’s going to be key,” said the coach. “As long as we have five or six girls that can handle the singles spots, I think that will be one of our strengths. Now, we have to figure out those doubles combinations, and that’s all that remains for us right now.”
To help lead the way, Thompson has named captains for the first time in years. As the lone senior, Murphy was the logical choice. As one of the top singles players, Barmore has proven her leadership skills.
“They were both no-brainers,” Thompson said. “Susan has three years of varsity experience, and she really rose to the occasion last year. I saw some things in her last year when she was trying to lead some of the kids in one direction, and she really deserves the opportunity. Ideally, I wouldn’t look at a junior to be a captain, but with Alex’s sense of humor and the fact that she’s our No. 1 singles player, that makes me think that she’ll do a really nice job.”
It won’t be easy to duplicate last year’s success, and it’s compounded by a smaller regular season schedule. With only 15 matches and a schedule that’s littered with perennial powers, there will be little room for error.
“I missed the scheduling meeting because we were in the quarterfinals last year, and nobody went in my place,” Thompson said. “We only had 13 matches coming out of that meeting, but I was able to get a couple more. I’m a little disappointed that we don’t have a full 18-game schedule, so those conference games are going to be even more crucial.”
The Knights will open with a challenging non-conference schedule before plunging into the conference schedule in early May. Will this be the season that Southington finally establishes themselves as the team to beat in the CCC West?
“It’s time. I might even go so far as to say that we can compete for the conference title, but I’m not quite ready to announce that yet,” said Thompson. “Last year we beat Hall and Farmington. Typically, it’s Hall, Simsbury, Farmington, and NW Catholic at the top. Those are usually the four strong teams, but we’re right there in the mix. It will come down to how hard the girls will compete. I think that every one of them is in a different position than they were in last year, so it’s just a matter of what they do with it.”
How will they handle the spotlight? How will they handle the shorter season and the bullseye that last year’s success has drawn on their backs? How will the juniors handle their new roles, and can they find another gear?
These are the questions that Thompson is looking to answer.
“These girls are juniors now, and when you get to this point in high school there’s a lot of other things that they’re doing. There’s driver’s ed. They’re working. I’m just trying to get them to understand their responsibilities with the team,” said the coach. “I expect them to play at 100 percent all of the time. I’m looking for all of them to be role models. I want them to be hard workers and set good examples for the others. What I really need is ownership of all that.”
Expectations are high for the Lady Knights.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.