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Hillcrest girls play tennis resilient, even in uncertainty



By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Hillcrest High seniors April Maxwell and Sydney Russell admit they didn’t have much experience trying tennis as freshmen.

They wanted to play with some friends and were happy when they made it. Little did they know then that, along with senior Annie Blake, they would be among the resilient four-year veterans who would lead the team this season.

Resilience has been part of the team since their freshman year when the Hillcrests tennis courts were torn apart as part of the construction of a new school on campus. Resilience in the fact that with each practice they split the team into two parts, part of it practicing in Mountain View Park and part of it in Antczak Park, where some courses are unusable and the team is limited in number by the number of five courses they instead of the typical eight courts in a high school. Resilience as every match and tournament is over as Hillcrest doesn’t have its own courts and knowing few classmates will travel to watch their matches.

And now, like many athletes, they are being tested for resilience while playing during COVID-19. They undergo daily health checks and social distance and do not share tennis balls. To ensure the health and safety of the student athletes, they canceled their annual participation in the St. George tournament in mid-September, which doubles as a team bond, and did not hold a skill camp for younger girls, which typically helps the sport and build the program.

This season, their fans, in masks, will be watching all over the field. Their coaches wear masks during practice and will during their matches.

I can’t get sick, said head coach Robert James. I cannot make my family sick.

Maxwell tries to remain optimistic.

We try to stay focused, stay positive, she said. It’s frustrating and hard to have all the challenges, but we want to play.

Maxwell played singles in her freshman year and played doubles with Lizzy Hamilton for the past two seasons. They remained undefeated during their second season in JV and were 6A region 2 champions, but lost in a tie-breaker in the post-region. Hamilton chose not to return this year.

Russell plays singles. She played both JV and Varsity in her freshman year and then finished second in the region as a varsity player in her sophomore year and competed in the state. Last year she played well, but was unable to continue.

We have changed regions, she said. We are now in a difficult region. Players at Skyline and Olympus have been playing since birth.

Her coach added to that mix of high schools in East and changed the age to 3, but agrees that 5A Region 6 is a tough region.

Half of our girls haven’t played for high school, so they want to get better, but it’s more social, he said. We don’t have money lessons expensive and club costs high and maybe the time and for some the desire to stay on their level.

Hillcrest, which won both years in their previous region, now competes with teams like Murray and Cottonwood in the current region.

Emily Zhang, who graduated last spring after playing on the team, hit balls with former teammates this summer.

It is a loaded region; there are many contenders for the state, she said. This year our team looks strong with some good returning players and a strong senior class. Sownya Paritala, who is now a sophomore, is likely to be our number 1 singles player.

Paritalas’ father, as well as Chris and Creighton Chung, assist James in coaching and helping the team, which includes eight returning varsity letter athletes.

James, who started hitting tennis balls against a wall every day from the age of eight or nine, went on to narrate all three years of his high school career. Hes now in his sixth year training Huskies.

Coach James is cold. He has an encouraging attitude and says, as long as you’re here, you’re going to play hard and have fun, Zhang said.

That is the approach Russell takes.

It’s a fun sport to play and to release some stress. I’ll just take it all on the ball, she said. We used the off season to improve and exercise.

Some non-regional competitions are still being set up since things were on hold with the initial cancellation of high school sports during COVID-19, James said. As of the press deadline, three non-regional games were scheduled for a total of 10 games. The season, which would start in mid-August, usually ends in late September.

We may not have all 14 games, but we have a great team. They all get along, putting each other and the team first. This is perfect weather for tennis and they love the sport, love to be part of a group, love each other. They are excellent students and know that school comes first, James said.

In fact, Hillcrest typically has one of the highest, if not the highest, GPA in the state, with an overall GPA of 3.8 or 3.9, he said.

The seniors hope to continue with team bonding, although team dinners, community service, and social events may be limited or given a new look with the pandemic.

All were good friends, said Maxwell. It’s a bit harder to start with COVID this season, and our training and tryouts are in shifts, so we keep space and social distance, but our goals are to get to know each other better, play better and connect with each other to encourage and support.

The seniors have already chosen their new black uniform with a simple logo and Hillcrest Husky as part of their desire to get back to basics.

Go through the basics and prepare mentally, Russell said. I am absolutely happy that we can play.

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