Rivalries are the best things in sports, especially when the competition and intangibles involved drive the opponents to greater levels.
But what if the opponent is your best friend?
Last Tuesday, Carroll No. 1 singles player Sydney Jackson had to play Leo's Haley Parker for about the eighth time over the last two years, including off-season tournaments where they are on the same team. Last year they played a pair of three-set matches during the high school season, and this time Jackson won in two sets.
But guess who has to face off again tomorrow when sectional play opens?
“It's always fun just because you know her, but it's also competitive so you have to get into the mindset to play your best friend,” said Jackson, a junior, last week. “After winning it, I can't get a big head because I have to be more prepared next week to play her because it's sectionals. We play so much that you know exactly how they play.”
Which means it's also harder to prepare for. And who would Parker call to commiserate with anyway?
“She's won most of them,” Parker said. “She's a hard hitter, she's aggressive and she plays an amazing game and I give her credit for that.”
And for this week?
“I just have to play my game, keep my aggressiveness, don't get mad at myself and keep my head in the game,” Parker said. “It's hard playing your friends because you are enemies for 2½-hours, but you still have to stay focused and play your game.”
That's kind of where the entire Leo team is. The Lions have lost only two matches all season and are putting forth their best-ever record, but they also know the Chargers are waiting again tomorrow. The No. 10-ranked Chargers beat the Lions 5-0 last week.
“Every match we go into I tell them our record and ask them what sectional we are in,” Lions coach Josh Grubbs said last week. “Carroll is known throughout the state. Kind of like what we did with the boys, our goal is to eventually get past Carroll. I saw some really good things today. Our girls I thought played pretty well today for the first time playing this type of team this year.
“A lot of these girls play together. They are all kind of friends off the court and they go to battle during the match. It's a little bit different mentality.”
Besides Parker, the Lions are led by seniors Parker, Ashton Heidenreich and Morgan Yingling and juniors Emili Runestad, Cassidy Boyce, Alex Bayes and Taylor Stahl.
“Every single varsity girl that came off the court tonight, we immediately talked about what would they have done differently that we can work on in our very limited practice time,” Grubbs said.
The Lions hope to grow into what Carroll has become, a state-recognized program which is having a great season despite not having any seniors on the roster. Jackson is a junior, along with Hannah Wallace, No. 2 singles player Katelyn VanWyngardern is a freshman, and Bailey Newman, Lauren VanWyngarden, Mia Toscos and Katie Beier are sophomores.
“It's a lot of fun,” Chargers coach Kyle Stoffel said. “They are all neat kids, fun to be around, and I look forward to coming out to practice every single day, every single match. None of them have big heads about anything.”
The Chargers also put in the work as the seven varsity players have participated in more than 100 off-season tournaments. That's at least 300 extra matches they have played against good competition.
“It's all those tournaments that turn you into, even as a sophomore, someone with experience,” Stoffel said.
For more on local tennis, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at @blakesebring and on Facebook at Blake Sebring.