CHAMPAIGN – Season No. 1 of St. Thomas More girls' tennis is nearly in the books, and for those involved, it appears the program's debut has been a rousing success.
That's certainly true for coach Jeremy Beach, the assistant teaching pro at Atkins Tennis Center who is coaching the program along with Atkins director Jim Tressler.
"As far as the first year, it couldn't have gone any better," said Beach, whose team had seven girls participate. "Some of the girls had played before, and some of them had very little tennis background. But they all improved a lot. They all competed well, and for some of them it was their first time competing in those kinds of matches. They got along great as a team."
That's certainly true for freshman Maddie Baillon, who finished second in singles at the Urbana Sectional and will compete in the state tournament starting Thursday in the Chicago suburbs.
"It's been a lot of fun," Baillon said. "Maybe we don't have as many people, but it's still fun to have a team. I see all these girls at school now. Before, I never would have talked to half of those girls, but now I want to see them and talk to them."
The guiding forces are Beach – the girls' head coach – and Tressler, who will be the boys' head coach in the spring. (In truth, they're more like co-coaches.)
They have faced some interesting situations this year, not the least of which is leading a program where the ability levels of their players can vary wildly. Baillon, for example, is an experienced player on the junior circuit who has great fundamentals, Beach said. Other players have little tennis experience.
Coaching both types of players, at the same time, can be a challenge. And though all high school tennis coaches face a similar quandary, most of the time they probably aren't as extreme as STM's case.
"That's where it becomes a little tricky," Beach said. "The thing you have to tell yourself and the team is, 'It's about the team.' I can't be feeding balls and working with Maddie the entire time. So some days the upper players are hitting with the players that aren't as good. That's where the individual comes in, and they have to understand, 'OK, I might not be getting a full workout in for myself, but I'm playing with someone who isn't as good and this is helping to improve their game.'
"You have to make sure all the players understand that. Winning the No. 6 singles is just as important as winning the No. 1 singles."
Beach said the Sabers have grasped that idea, and that includes Baillon, who went 8-3 in singles matches this season, two of the losses coming against Urbana standout Katarina Marjanovic.
"I don't go out and try to beat up on them," Baillon said. "If I see that they're doing something they shouldn't, I try to step up and tell them that they should move this way a little bit or don't take such a big swing. Try to help them out.
"I don't think anybody takes it like I'm trying to tell them what to do. I think they understand I'm trying to help them out."
Beach and Baillon said they expect a bright future for the program. Baillon's immediate future includes an appearance at state, fulfilling her goal.
"My goal is to win my first match and go from there," Baillon said.
Like her teammates, who benefited just by playing tennis for a full season, Baillon will be better because of the experience of competing at the highest level.
"That's why getting to state as a freshman is so important," Beach said. "It allows you to see the kind of players that are going to be up there. It's going to be tough. But the goals are to have fun, enjoy the competition and be competitive."
Tony Bleill is a News-Gazette staff writer. He can be reached at 217-351-5605 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.