When the Saline varsity girls tennis team concludes its 2018 season this weekend at Midland, they’ll be putting a bow on one of the best seasons in team history.
The Hornets are returning to the state tournament for the first time in eight years. But even more impressive, the Saline girls won the SEC Tourney and SEC conference. Nobody in the tennis program can remember the last time that happened.
Tennis pro Andy BeDell has been coaching at Saline High School since 2005. He can’t ever remember Saline winning the SEC Tournament. A trip through the archives of the Saline Reporter found a title in 1992 – back when Saline competed in a league with Ann Arbor Greenhills and Jackson Lumen Christi.
But it’s been slim pickings since the tennis team joined the SEC.
“Ann Arbor Huron and Ann Arbor Pioneer have dominated the conference,” BeDell said.
This year, Saline turned the tide. The Hornets were undefeated in the SEC Red. The tie with Huron was the only thing resembling a blemish on Saline’s conference record. Then Saline won the SEC Tournament with 30 points. Pioneer was second with 27 and Skyline was third with 26. Huron, with a couple students taking SATs, finished fourth with 21 points.
BeDell said this year’s team has great depth and a good mix of senior leadership and young talent.
“We have five seniors who’ve been on the team three or four years. They provide good leadership and guidance and help keep the team motivated, on-task, with focus and intensity.
Madison Caldwell, who plays singles flight two, is the only senior in singles. In doubles, Zoe Ellsworth and Ally Heider are seniors at doubles one, and Megan Foley and Saige Jost are seniors at doubles two.
One of the most importance developments for the team this year was the emergence of freshman Andrea Teofilovic. Playing singles first flight, she’s shouldered the burden of facing the top girls in the state, match after match.
“She’s a great player who plays in all USTA. She has so much upside and she’s only going to get better,” BeDell said. “She’s stepped into a tough role and she’s handled it well.”
BeDell points to her recent victory over Pioneer junior Meg Goldberg as a major moment in her season.
“She’d lost to her previously then turned around and beat her in straight sets,” BeDell said.
Senior Madison Caldwell has been impressed with Teofilovic.
“She’s a very talented player with a lot of promise. I’ve been very impressed by her success this season. I believe she has a winning record, which is very impressive at 1 singles,” Caldwell said.
As the only senior playing singles varsity, and as someone with a lot of experience playing one singles, Caldwell has helped the freshman with words of wisdom.
“I’d like to think that I helped her a lot at the beginning of the season. I told her that throughout her time in Saline tennis she will take some tough losses, but she’ll have to shake it off and put forward her best effort next match.
Caldwell, herself, has enjoyed her best season, according to BeDell.
“Beyond being a great leader, she’s having the year of her career. She’s beating girls she didn’t beat last year, and she won first flight in the quad. She’s really stepped up and she’s a great example for our young players,” BeDell said.
Two of those young players are sophomores Carly Hiner, three singles, and Jenny Wolf, four singles.
“Carly has been rock solid. She’s aggressive. We threw her into the breach as a freshman and she accepted the challenge. She’s a very aggressive player,” BeDell said. “Jenny has been lights-out good. She’s quiet, but she’s been a go-to player. She’s a player a coach loves because she knows how to turn in results.”
Wolf won the fourth flight at SECs and reached the regional final.
Saline has made its bones with doubles. When they tied Huron, 4-4, the Saline doubles teams swept their rivals from Huron.
It starts with seniors Aly Heider and Zoe Ellsworth in the first flight.
“They won the conference. They were the one-seed at regionals. They beat everyone from Ann Arbor. They beat Novi. They beat Troy,” BeDell said. “You can’t ask for more than that.”
Megan Foley and Saige Jost compete in the second flight, where they won at the SECs and reached the finals at the regional.
“The two doubles spot has been money in the bank all year. What’s really incredible his how Megan and Saige have done in tie-breakers.” BeDell said. “They’ve been winning all the close matches.”
Nina Ellsworth and Sarah Roberts compete in the third flight.
“They didn’t play together last year, so we weren’t sure how they were going to come together. But they got off to good start and developed chemistry,” BeDell said. “They have a workmanlike fashion. They just go out and do what they need to do.”
Lindsey Barba and Brooke Englehardt have been playing fourth flight. They reached the final at regionals before falling to Pioneer in a close match. When BeDell talks about the importance of depth, he points to his fourth doubles team. Saline needed 18 points at the regional to qualify for states. They got exactly 18. And the team of Barba and Englehardt was perilously close to losing.
“They competed well through the entire tournament. At one point, late in the day, they had match point against them. They fought back to win and that put us over the edge. It was huge,” BeDell said.
The Hornets are proud of what they’ve accomplished – particularly the seniors who’ve spent four years slugging it out and not seeing results.
“Our team is extremely proud that we were finally able to make it to states this year,” said senior Zoe Ellsworth. “The seniors and other upperclassmen have watched the team grow since freshman year, so we are very excited that we were finally able to qualify this year and win SECs. We all agree that we have earned the wins we’ve pulled out and it’s amazing to see all of our hard work pay off.”
“The success we have achieved this year is something I never thought would be possible, but something that I have dreamed of for the last 4 years. We all take so much pride and this because we accomplished those things as a team, not as individuals,” Caldwell said. “Personally, I am incredibly proud of this team’s maturity and ability to pull through in tough situations.”
BeDell said this year’s team has been easy to coach.
“They’ve bonded really well. They pick each other up and cheer each other on. It’s the best chemistry we’ve had in years,” BeDell said. “They organize their own team dinners and I think that bond helps us in competition.”
Caldwell agreed with her coach.
“I’ve been on quite a few teams. Being on a small team of girls is tough because there tends to be drama and cliques. This year I haven’t seen nearly as much drama. As a team, we all get along. At team bonding events, no one is left out,” Caldwell said. “We all support each other and are on the fence cheering for our teammates. As a result, when we play a match, we’re trying to win it for not just ourselves, but our entire team. It makes every match more intense, but so much sweeter if you win.”
Confidence is a key reason for the team’s success this year. Ellsworth has watched the team develop since her freshman year.
“In past years we’ve always worked hard and played tough but especially this year we’ve been especially driven to make it to States because we knew what we were capable of,” she said.
Now, the team looks ahead to the state tournament, Friday and Saturday, in Midland. The Hornets will have a tough road because they’re going in with low seed.
“Nobody is going to want to see us. We’ve got depth across the lineup. We can surprise some teams,” BeDell said.
Caldwell and Ellsworth are looking forward to building on what Saline has already built this year.
“I hope to finish off the year strong at states and put Saline tennis on the radar and exceed any expectations our team has going into states,” Caldwell said.
By virtue of what they’ve already accomplished, this team has already won in some ways. There’s not a lot left to prove.
“Well, no matter what happens, our season is over on Saturday. I just want to have a fun time at states,” Caldwell said. “I don’t think we have any expectations as a team, which makes the whole experience much less stressful and much more fun. I think that’s a good mentality because we’re all on the team to have fun.”