Emily Tolman’s high school tennis career began so modestly three years ago that the first time she stepped on the court for tryouts at Mattanawcook Academy, she didn’t even have her own racket.
“I used my sister’s racket for a long time, and then I got one of my own about halfway through my freshman season,” she said.
Tolman is one of several seniors at the Lincoln school who made the switch from softball to tennis together upon their arrival at MA, and they’re glad they did.
The seniors already have made history, becoming the first North/East regional champion to capture the Class C state championship after edging Maranacook of Readfield 3-2 in last year’s state final.
Now the group, with some younger teammates, hopes to springboard from a third straight undefeated regular season to capture a second state title. That quest begins Thursday when the top-ranked Lynx host No. 8 Calais in a Class C North quarterfinal.
“As a team, the atmosphere feels good,” said senior Katey Libby, MA’s top singles player. “It always has been, but because we’ve been together for the last few years and the fact that we won last year gives us more of a reason to keep working harder for our last year to go out giving it everything we have.”
Coach Aaron Ward’s club, led by singles players Libby, Tolman and senior Sydney Jones as well as senior Delaney Kneeland and junior Emily Tilton at first doubles and senior Sarah Hanington and junior Paige Briggs at second doubles, has won its past 28 matches and is 41-1 over the past three years.
The Lynx have been at their most dominating this spring, winning 59 of their 60 individual varsity matches en route to a 12-0 record.
“They are just so coachable,” 10th-year coach Ward said. “Even today, it’s a group that’s won a state championship, but I’m still able to teach them new things, and they’re still willing to learn new things, that’s been the key to success the whole way.”
The seniors on the varsity squad joined the program in 2016 without any experience in the sport.
“I played softball forever from Little League up, but my sister [Ciara] played tennis in high school, and she had Mr. Ward as a coach and she really liked it, so that’s what kind of made me do it,” said Tolman, who plays second singles.
Tolman and Libby each saw some time at second doubles as freshmen when they helped the 2016 MA girls capture their first regional title in 16 years.
The other newcomers largely were confined to the practice courts and junior varsity matches, where the learning came without the stress of varsity competition.
“When we all came in as freshmen and were giving some of the seniors a run for their money. I think that’s when we realized we could do something,” Tolman said.
The group moved up to varsity play the next year and went undefeated during the regular season to earn the No. 1 seed in Class C North before being ousted by perennial power George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill in the regional semifinals.
“I tell them all the time that if I’m coaching against you, this is how I’d try to beat you and so we work on that and they buy into it and they enjoy that sense of challenge,” Ward said.
The players’ response has been to prove they cannot be beaten that way.
Last year Mattanawcook again went undefeated during the regular season and lost only one individual match in regional tournament play to win a second Class C North title in three years.
The 2018 Lynx then scored victories from Libby at second singles and both doubles teams — Jones and Kneeland at first doubles and Natalie McCarthy and Tilton at second doubles — to ignite a celebration no Class C North or East team had experienced since the third class was added to high school tennis in 1995.
“I think their whole mentality shifted their junior year,” Ward said of the team’s 2018 mantra, “Fear the North.” “They were just hungry. They weren’t going down there [to the state championship] to lose. They were going down there to win it.”
This year’s team returned five of its seven players and that experience, along with another rigorous summer program, has made MA as the favorite to at least return to states.
“That’s been the beauty of this year, that they’re fully aware they’re not perfect tennis players and they’re still coachable,” Ward said. “They always think they can do better and they expect the best of themselves which says a lot about them as people. They’re going to do great things in life, I can tell, just because of their mentality.”
Ward sees relentlessness in his veteran players, a quality that may help further validate what three years earlier was a fairly radical decision by a group of freshmen opting to change sports in mid-career.
“[Tennis] was just something to do at first, but it definitely ended up being a big part of everything, and now it’s one of my favorite things to do,” Libby said.