With the last leg of the regular season over with, Thomas Dale’s boy’s and girl’s tennis teams have proven themselves formidable opposition in the Central District and the Central Region.
The young teams, in age and experience, have battled all spring to be in their present positions. With less than ten years of coaching experience between the Boy’s and Girl’s head coaches (Cory Neal and Kara Watts, respectively), both teams have maintained winning records this season with the girl’s squad suffering only three losses.
In Neal’s first year coaching at Dale, the Knights took second in the district and got a taste of victory – something that has shown through in their performances ever since.
“Our program has grown consistently stronger over the past four years,” said Coach Neal.
Since Neal’s takeover in 2008, the boy’s tennis team has not only tied their Central District rivals Prince George in the 2009 postseason tournament but in 2010 were district champions, Singles and doubles district champions, when Neal was district Coach of the Year.
“This year, we aim to finish undefeated – a goal we did not accomplish last year, winning both the Singles and Doubles titles and going further in the regional tournament than we have in the past,” Neal added.
After losing five out of six starters from last year, Neal utilized five non-starters to fill the gap, demonstrating the extent of the team’s depth. Playing at the No. 1 position for the team is sophomore Shahbaz Mughal, this season beating “powerhouses” Joo Lee from Prince George and Ben Thoreson from Matoaca.
“I’d like to see younger players starting to play more and more,” said Neal. “In two years, I will graduate sixteen players, so in order for us to remain competitive, we are going to need new blood.”
The boy’s tennis has been in the polls since the season began, sporting a 14-0 record, and currently ranked in the Times-Dispatch’s Spring Sports Polls, while the Lady Knights have held a top-ten spot in the polls for much of the spring as well.
“No one expects Thomas Dale to have a good girl’s tennis team,” said second-year head coach and English teacher Kara Watts, “and we want to prove them wrong.”
According to Watts, this year’s team turned heads when they beat Prince George in this season’s opening match.
“I was really nervous going into this season because I lost my No.’s 1, 2, 3, and 6, so I figured this would be a season of rebuilding and I was fine with that,” said Watts.
“After beating Prince George, my girls all impressed me and showed me how good they are.”
No. 1 is senor captain Kim Church, who is also an accomplished field hockey player. Her Doubles partner is No. 2 Sheridan Thagard.
“Their partnership is amazing; they both have an amazing net game. They know how to place the ball and set points up that are effective,” said Watts on her starters. “I think Church and Thagard can make it far because of how well they work together.”
Having lost three matches this season – against Prince George, Colonial Heights and Dinwiddie – the Lady Knights have taken second place in regular season Central District standings.
Next week begins the postseason with both teams eyeing the district title, and Neal anticipates quite the challenge.
“We have got to win these matches because they aren’t going to be handed to us – we have to work for every point,” he said.