ELLSWORTH, Maine — The Ellsworth High School girls tennis team had a two-for-one opportunity in Friday’s Eastern Maine Class B quarterfinal match against the Hermon Hawks.
First and foremost, it was an opportunity to extend the season and keep hopes for Eastern Maine and state championships alive for another day.
The second opportunity dealt with a coaching career that started more 30 years ago as coach Brian Higgins was seeking his 600th tennis victory.
Higgins, who has coached both the boys and the girls teams since the early 1980s, picked up win 599 on Thursday with a boys’ quarterfinal victory.
The Ellsworth girls did not waste their chances as they recorded a 3-2 victory to move on to the semifinals Saturday against the Vikings in Caribou while also helping Higgins reach the coaching milestone.
“It’s a culmination of a lot of years,” Higgins said, noting that he had no recollection of when or where his first tennis win actually happened.
Higgins, one of the only tennis players in town in the 1980s, helped put together both the boys and girls programs at Ellsworth. Thirty-two years later, the program has come a long way, according to Higgins.
“We had no courts to play on, so we played a lot of away matches and practiced on private courts,” he said. The school installed courts just 14 years ago.
“I started the program then and who knew it would stay,” Higgins said.
The 600th victory was a second major coaching milestone for Higgins as he won his 500th game as boys soccer coach at Ellsworth last fall.
Higgins said that the tennis accomplishment was a bit different.
“Today it’s parents and very few student body,” he said, comparing Friday’s celebration to the crowd of 300 to 500 for soccer. “It’s just a low-key sport, but it means a lot to them and it means a lot to me.”
Higgins had trouble comparing the two achievements as tennis is an individual sport while soccer provides more of a team dynamic. The one similarity he did point out was the mental portion of each sport.
“To me they are both intelligent games,” he said. “You have to think in soccer to make your passes and in tennis it’s the same, as you have to figure out where to hit the ball and hope you have the skills to back it up.”
On the court, the Eagles claimed the victory in the first three matches, winning their two doubles matches and a crucial singles match.
The pairings of Rachel Ball-Jessica Toothaker and Olivia Mora-Mackenzie Myers won their matches in two sets, each by 6-1, 6-1 scores.
The Ball-Toothaker tandem focused on keeping pace with their opponent, finding their stride in the middle portion of the match. Though the win looked to be a breeze, senior Ball thought otherwise.
“They came into the volley lines, so we had to navigate where we were going to put the ball,” she said.
Both Ball and Toothaker were aggressive in the frontcourt, returning tough drop shots from the Hermon side.
In singles play, Ellsworth’s Paige Lewis cruised through her first set with no problem, winning 6-0. She was able to limit her movement and answer dazzling returns with ones of her own. The challenge came in the second set as Hermon’s Maggie Pierce started to make Lewis move across the court and into frontcourt more than the previous set.
“She picked up her game, so I knew that I was going to have to pick up mine to win,” said Lewis.
Lewis adjusted after Pierce had drop shots that she followed up with balls over Lewis’ head. The Ellsworth senior regained control once she got the ball back in front of her, taking the second set and the match, 6-1.
After the match, the girls celebrated Higgins’ achievement, presenting him with a plaque and a giant tennis ball signed by both the girls and boys teams.
For Lewis and Ball, who have played tennis for all four seasons of high school, the influence of Higgins on and off the court has been tremendous.
“He’s such a fun person at practice and is so kind, while always pushing us to do our best,” said Lewis.
“Ever since I was a freshman, he’s always pushed me to be a better doubles player,” Ball added. “He always gives us good advice on what to do out there.”