GIBSON CITY — It would be easy to misunderstand the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley girls' tennis team.
It is one of the state's smallest, yet at the same time, also one of the largest.
What appears to be incongruous is actually a testament to the manner in which the decades-old program is flourishing.
With an enrollment of 289 students, GCMS is one of the smallest IHSA schools to compete in girls' tennis. With a squad of 24 prospects, the numbers are ones few schools can match.
Watseka has a roster of 23 this year, Champaign Central has 19, Rantoul has 18, Danville has 14, St. Thomas More has 13, Centennial has 10 and Urbana also has 10, nine of whom are freshmen.
The requirements to be a part of the GCMS team are not many, according to senior Leah Keim.
"All you have to do is try your best and have a good attitude," Keim said.
Meeting their match
The squad members come from different backgrounds in athletics but with one almost-universal trait.
"My first time to ever play tennis was freshman year at the first practice," Keim said.
Senior teammate Laini Bishop, who now joins Keim as the Falcons' No. 1 doubles duo, was even further behind.
"I didn't have a clue what the rules were or even how to hold a racket until I was a freshman," Bishop said. "I had just started my career around the time girls my age had been playing in country clubs for years."
Senior Katie Ricks, who is now the school's No. 1 singles player, barely knew that GCMS offered tennis as an option for high school girls.
"When I was little, the only time I ever saw or heard about tennis was when they would ride by on their float in the homecoming parade," Ricks said. "Back then, I never really thought about playing tennis, but I must say, I always thought their skirts were cool."
What's cool now is to be a part of the Falcons' thriving program. The team has a 2-2 record in dual meets.
Keim is delighted that she gave tennis a chance.
"I just read a letter I wrote to myself in fifth grade," she said. "It said that I wanted to play volleyball, basketball and softball. It also went on to say I might want to try track, but it didn't even mention tennis."
Service, and a smile
When Ricks first picked up a racket the summer before her freshman year, her parents, she said, were "a bit skeptical."
At that time she already had tried — and left — different sports.
"They were afraid, like volleyball, soccer, basketball and track, I would decide it wasn't for me," Ricks said.
Middle school volleyball, in fact, brought her more frustrations than rewards.
"I was always so embarrassed when I was the only girl who couldn't do an overhand serve," Ricks said.
With a racket in her hands, and a smaller ball, the outcome was different.
"I knew I was in love when I discovered that unlike volleyball I could serve the ball without hitting the net every time," Ricks said. "Now, I'm proud to say people are scared of my serves."
The participation at GCMS — which had its first state qualifiers in tennis in the 1970s — has grown during Cindy Petersen's tenure as head coach. In 2008, when she was an assistant, there were 12 squad members. That total grew to 18 in her first two years as head coach before hitting 24 this fall.
"I absolutely believe it is because of her we have such a big team," senior Bonnie Eyer said. "She doesn't ever turn anyone down."
Before senior Jessica Schultz joined as a sophomore, her attitude was, "Why would anyone want to play tennis?"
Petersen has been instrumental in helping Schultz to recognize it's more than a game.
"She teaches us not only how to play but also life lessons along with it," Schultz said. "She knows it's about building self-esteem and confidence, and how to have fun doing it."
As she examines the process, Ricks said it's not difficult to understand why so many GCMS students are involved with the sport.
"There are a few things you can be certain of," Ricks said. "You will have a great time, make lots of amazing friends and you will work very hard.
"We support each other in times of winning, and we support each other when we lose. We laugh almost as hard as we play, and we have a blast playing the sport we love. It's this kind of fun and welcoming atmosphere that attracts so many people."
Sophomore Carson Arends sees a self-perpetuating cycle to the program.
"We are a very inviting team and easy to get along with," Arends said. "People see that we love to have fun, so I think that makes them want to join in on it as well."
A life pursuit
The advantage of fall sports, such as tennis and golf, is that they are lifetime activities individuals can remain competitive in well after graduation.
"I can't imagine giving up tennis," Bishop said. "I doubt if any of the girls who continue to pursue it will give it up, either. I will enter my 50s with a racket in hand, and I will encourage my younger teammates to do the same."
Bishop said the Falcons take pride in their competitiveness. Last year's team was 9-5 in duals, tying the single-season record for wins.
"We haven't been trained in the offseason, haven't been raised in country clubs or had private lessons," she said. "What you see is what we get, and we still go out and beat these girls."
Petersen is the face of the program. Because there was no feeder program, she implemented a high school summer camp in 2009 to prevent potential players from coming to varsity practice in mid-August having never held a tennis racket.
A year ago, she added a camp for sixth- through eighth-grade students, and 18 individuals attended. This summer, she allowed students — boys and girls — as young as fourth grade to participate and the turnout hit 40.
Ricks said it was heartwarming to see the interest from the pre-teens.
"It was so wonderful to see the future of the team starting to learn the game at that age, and with such numbers," she said.
At any opportunity, first-grade teacher Petersen will promote the merits of the high school team.
"Win or lose, she always has something she can't wait to brag about when we're done," Arends said. "She would talk someone's ear off about our tennis program if she could, and that makes us happy to have her as coach. She really cares about the program and us as well.
"Her ability to teach and work us while having fun really increases the numbers."
Facing the limits
Logistically, two dozen aspiring tennis players can be a difficult number for a school with only two guaranteed courts (by the high school football field) and two others it can use on occasion (by the community swimming pool).
That's not a deterrent for the Falcons.
"I'm glad so many girls are interested this year," Arends said, "even if it does mean we may get less playing time on the courts in practice."
Petersen makes certain practices are never mundane.
"I am constantly looking for new and fun ways to teach a skill I think the girls will enjoy," Petersen said. "Since we live in such a fast-paced world, I think it is important to keep things fresh and interesting in my coaching as well.
"For instance, one night we might to a cardio workout dancing to a favorite musical artist or we might move around the court in a snake pattern to the tune of one of my favorite musicians. No two nights of practice are the same."
Overcoming the odds
The biggest odds — and what makes it hardest to catch up — is that GCMS virtually always faces opponents from much larger schools or with years more experience. A recent dual meet was played against Morris, a school with 960 students. GCMS also played Centennial, which has an enrollment of 1,383.
Arends acknowledges it can be intimidating.
"Some of these girls were probably born with a racket in hand and their very first word was 'tennis,' " she said. "I try not to let it get to me, though I get pretty nervous before every match."
When there are successes — such as Arends winning at No. 2 singles against Centennial — they are to be celebrated.
"I have worked hard just like they have to earn my spot on varsity," Arends said. "GCMS' tennis team shouldn't be underestimated."
Bishop agreed that it's not always bad to be the underdog.
"We break the stereotype and prove we aren't some little public hick-town team," Bishop said. "We mean business. We are a force to be reckoned with."
For some, the progress may seem like small steps, but for the GCMS tennis squad, they are gratifying ones.
"It makes me proud, as a four-year player, to know that people are starting to recognize us and what kind of program we have," Eyer said. "I can't wait until people look at us and get scared because they know what kind of threat we are on the court."
Not only is Petersen quick with the praise but she is also even quicker to avoid biting criticisms. That philosophy is followed up by those on the team.
"No one is singled out as being bad at tennis or is told how horrible they are doing," Eyer said. "Everyone is there to help each other when they need it."
Eyer, in fact, in her younger years visualized herself as someone who would focus on singles.
"I expected to play singles a lot," she said, "mostly because I didn't want to leave half the court in someone else's hands."
All it took to change her mind was time and a good partner (Schultz).
"Now, I don't know where I would be without doubles," she said. "I don't like to play singles as much, but I will play it if Coach Petersen asks me to."
When GCMS defeated Watseka, the Falcons swept the three doubles matches, including a win by Eyer/Schultz at No. 3 and another by the unbeaten No. 2 senior doubles unit of Jackie Freehill and Kelly Arends.
Managing just fine
The high number of participants might seem like an anomaly for a school the size of GCMS, but athletic director Mike Allen said it's not unusual.
"Last fall, we had over 83 percent of our student body participating in a fall activity," Allen said, "and it is right around the same (percentage) this year. Our students are very active in our school."
The tennis turnout means additional work for Allen on the dates of road matches. No longer does GCMS travel to its destinations in a mini-bus.
"The last couple of years, we've had a big bus for our away meets," Petersen said.
The traveling party also includes a manager that the head coach and her assistant, Marni Bishop, consider indispensable. Junior Haiden Coates is "absolutely wonderful," Petersen said.
"He is constantly encouraging the girls and does anything needed to help with practices and matches. He helps with gathering balls at practice so the girls don't have to stop playing to get them, and he also does all the other odd jobs needed to make game time and practices more efficient. He is such a big part of our team."
First things first
Coaches who instruct the same athletes all four years of high school often refer to the players as like family. For Petersen, she has literally watched some of her squad members mature from a young age. Arends, Ricks and Schultz are individuals she taught more than a decade ago as first-grade students.
"It's really neat to see them grow and develop as players," Petersen said.
Whether in school or on the tennis courts, Petersen has mastered an essential trait beyond patience.
"I learned long ago to listen," she said. "Kids need to be listened to. Their opinions and feelings are important. What they have to say matters, so I have a very open-door policy with my players.
"They know they can come and talk to me about any concerns or issues they might be having, and we will take care of it together."
Allen believes the girls will appreciate in the future the skills Petersen is helping instill now.
"The girls are learning a game they can play the rest of their lives," Allen said, "and they are having fun doing it.
"Each year, our program is becoming more competitive and gaining more respect with other schools that have tennis. I think the reason our tennis program is flourishing is because of Cindy Petersen. She has brought so much excitement to the program."
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fast facts about the GCMS girls’ tennis program:
First team — 1973
First coach — Anita Kinate
First season record — 4-1-1
First singles state qualifier — Tammy McCullough, 1973
First doubles state qualifiers — Tammy McCullough and Peg Hill, 1974
Most state appearances — Lisa Noble, 1990, 1991, 1992
Longest coaching tenure — Peg Hill, 12 years (1983-89; 1992-96)
Season record, team wins — 9-7 in 1995 and 9-5 in 2010