JUNEAU - The Juneau-Douglas High School Crimson Bears tennis team roared back to life this month.
With the first road trip to Anchorage scheduled for this weekend, the popularity of the sport is on the rise and the players are more focused than ever on winning.
Over the past six years, the tennis program blossomed from a handful of athletes into an abundant turnout.
"We have grown dramatically," assistant coach Lindsey Kelly said. "The number of kids we have coming out for the tennis team is the most drastic change we see on a yearly basis. We have about 60 kids this year as opposed to 40 from last season."
In the early days of JDHS tennis, the sport grew by word of mouth from friends and family and by the advertisement of enrollment and upcoming local tournaments. These days the sport grows in precision and excellence.
In terms of skill building and execution, the 2008 season promises to be productive for Bears tennis.
"The players are more serious and they are getting stronger," Kelly said. "We have had a lot more kids playing in the off-season. They improve their game by playing against the adults in matches and tournaments and we have had a variety of tennis pros come and help us."
Later this week, Hassan Bani-Saiid is returning to Juneau to work with the team and give some private lessons at the JRC Alaska Club during head coach Amy Skilbred's absence.
According to assistant coach Bev Smith, Bani-Saiid used to be Juneau's tennis pro and she credits him with getting the JDHS tennis team off the ground. The team is looking forward to his return, even if it is only for 10 days.
Even with the outside help, practice time is precious because so many players are now a part of the team. Moreover, match play is critical to getting the kids the experience needed for playing in the state tournament and with the season ending in October, the state championships in Anchorage is already on everyone's mind.
"I really want to make it to the state championships, so I am working really hard for that," third-year player James Holzenberg said. "I have ... a lot of experience playing against some of the better players on the team, so I'd say my skills have been improving a lot from practice."
The JDHS tennis team achieves more then just tennis skills during the season. Leadership skills, teaching roles, and new friendships are all facets incorporated with the sport.
"A lot of seniors are role models for the entire team and as captains they help provide leadership because they help the coaches out by organizing a court according to the coaches' plan," Kelly said.
Not only do the upperclassmen help out running the drills, they also enjoy it.
"For the kids who just started, it is fun to watch them grow and to able to help them grow in their skills," Senior Merijke Coenraad said.
For the young players, mastering the different stroke techniques such as volleys, serves and ground strokes is important. Players say the team's unity on and off the court is equally important.
"One of my favorite things about the team is that as we have grown and traveled together, we have developed good friends who you can just call up and go play tennis or do other things with," Coenraad said.
Bears tennis looks for good things to come from girls like Coenraad and junior Laurel Messerschmitt. For the boys, seniors like Nathan Graves, who was a finalist at last year's state tournament, are standing out.
Even though the preseason is too soon to tell, it is evident that the players are preparing for a championship run.
"We will know more about the other teams when we ... go up to Anchorage and play them this weekend, but we are also excited ... (to do) well at state this year." Coenraad said.
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