By Marty Kirkland
VARNELL — Coahulla Creek High School’s tennis teams aren’t letting much keep them from playing — and winning — this season.
On Monday, they picked up their opponent before picking up another pair of victories.
When it became clear by midday that Southeast Whitfield’s tennis teams wouldn’t have a bus driver available to take them to their non-region match in Varnell, Coahulla Creek assistant coach Laura Jager — who is certified by the Whitfield County school system to drive a bus — volunteered to retrieve Southeast coach Philip King and his boys and girls squads.
The matches started later than scheduled, but they started thanks to Jager’s ride. They ended in Coahulla Creek’s favor thanks to another strong performance by the Colts and Lady Colts, who each won 5-0 as the teams improved to a combined 17-1 with the season a little more than a month old.
The strong start is the latest step in a steady run of progress for tennis at the third-year school. After missing the state tournament in their inaugural season, the Colts and Lady Colts both qualified last year — the boys as Region 5-3A’s No. 4 seed, the girls as the No. 3 seed — but lost in the opening round of the Class 3A bracket at Oconee County.
The early portion of the schedule suggests things are continuing to move forward — the Colts are 9-0 overall and 7-0 in region play, while the Lady Colts are 8-1 and 6-1. Region 5-3A tennis teams play a home-and-home series with everyone in the region, and Coahulla Creek has faced everyone save Sonoraville at least once, making both the Colts and Lady Colts look like region title contenders.
“I think we have kids that want (to succeed) and are willing to put in the time and effort,” said Jager, an assistant since the program’s start. “We have nine kids on our team that are taking (advanced placement) classes, so the (grade point average) for the team is very, very high. When you take those kinds of kids that have those GPAs and transition that into a sport, they’re bringing that same drive.”
Against Southeast, Coahulla Creek’s boys lineup included five seniors and a pair of juniors. The age of the roster is paying off in match experience as well as urgency. With several Colts in their final go-round for high school tennis, they’re taking a sense of urgency with them on the court.
Whether or not the school is still relatively new, the seniors know it’s their last chance to prove themselves.
“Most schools starting out, usually it takes them a while,” said Colts No. 1 singles player Jake Mathis. “But I think we’ve seen great progress in just the first three years.”
Against Southeast, No. 1 Mathis beat Alejandro Luna 6-1, 6-2, No. 2 Chase Lynch beat Alexis Becerra 6-1, 2-6, 10-8, and No. 3 Alex Jarjoura beat Jorge Ruedas 6-0, 6-4. In boys doubles, No. 1 Jake Stevenson and Austin Turner beat Marcelo Galaviz and Trey Weaver 6-0, 6-1, while No. 2 Andy Dixon and Austin Lansing beat Selso Aguilar and Craig Dunnell 6-1, 6-0.
Like Mathis, Dixon, Jarjoura, Stevenson and Turner are seniors, while Lansing and Lynch are juniors.
Jarjoura, a 6-foot-3 former basketball player who has put more time into tennis since giving up that sport, said the Colts don’t wait for match day to compete, either.
“It’s very competitive when we practice,” he said. “We all don’t like to lose, so when we play it’s like we’re butting heads, but as soon as we’re off the court we’re great friends.”
The Lady Colts have a greater mix of ages in their lineup, but they’ve kept pace with their boys counterparts in improving over the years. Their only loss this season is to Cartersville, and they’ll have a chance to avenge that defeat as they host the Region 5-3A foe today.
Against Southeast, in singles No. 1 Erin Orem beat Daisy Maya 6-0, 6-0, No. 2 Kathryn Barker beat Desiree Gonzalez 6-1, 6-0 and No. 3 Katherine Anne Sheppard beat Gabby Ortiz 6-2, 6-1. In doubles, No. 1 Kateleen Chasteen and Alex Wilbanks beat Cristina Limas and Ally Stanley 6-0, 6-1, while Olivia Hughes and Madison Zerbe beat Rubi Barajas and Alondra Lopez, 6-0, 6-0.
Barker is a freshman, Chasteen is a sophomore, Wilbanks is a senior and the rest are juniors.
Orem, who has been a varsity starter since her freshman season, is hoping for more after getting a taste of state last season. She pointed to team chemistry as a big help toward that goal.
“We’re like a family,” said Orem, who is 9-0 this year. “It makes tennis even more fun when you have great teammates behind you.”
Coahulla Creek’s on-court success has happened despite turnover at the top. Matt Facey is the program’s third head coach in three seasons — he follows David Friend, who retired, and Ryan Long, who is the school’s head girls basketball coach — but several players and Facey pointed to the organizational stability and encouragement provided over the years by Jager.
Jager’s run to fetch Southeast — she even endured making a pit stop to wait for a backup bus after a passing driver let her know she had a wobbly wheel — was just the latest example of what she means to Coahulla Creek tennis.
“I feel like as a coach I need to give my kids every opportunity to play,” Jager said.
For several reasons, Facey, a history teacher at the school, knew he was taking over a good program.
“The group of kids that we have had on the tennis team the past two years have been incredible as far as academics, and they’re such athletic kids, too,” said Facey, who is also assisted by Denise Ziegler. “To be lucky enough to have them all on a tennis team has been pretty phenomenal.”
Both Southeast teams fell to 1-3 with the loss, but King, who is in his second season as head coach, was impressed by the fight several of his players showed at Coahulla Creek. With just nine players back from last season — five boys and four girls — Southeast is rebuilding in more ways than one, practicing and playing away from home this year while new on-campus courts are constructed.
“None of our three (boys singles players) played singles last year, so they’re all new,” King said. “And for our 2 and 3 to go to a tiebreaker in one and the other to come back and almost make it a three-set match, I’m proud of both those guys. The good news is all three of our singles, we’ll have back next year — they’re all juniors. It’s pretty exciting to see how much better they’ve gotten since last year after not even being varsity singles guys. To play Coahulla Creek, who’s undefeated, and hang in there with them, it’s encouraging.”
Coahulla Creek is building, too — it’s just that the Colts and Lady Colts happen to be ahead of many of their opponents, and they want to keep adding new levels of success.
“We’ve got a big group of sophomores that started this year and they’re pure athletes — they’re basketball players and play multiple sports,” Turner said. “They’re progressing so fast that I’ve actually stopped a couple times when I’ve seen them off playing on another court (outside of) practice and cheered them on.
“I was like ‘I’m so glad that you guys are out here making a team that’s going to replace us when we go.’”