HARRISONBURG — As Karen Clark prepared for her third season as the Turner Ashby girls tennis coach in March, she acknowledged she was likely facing her toughest challenge yet.
“Time will tell,” Clark said at the time. “I’m extremely optimistic, but talk to me in six weeks.”
In Clark’s first season as coach — she previously served as an assistant cross country coach and didn’t have any history with tennis — the Knights made just their second-ever appearance in the regional tournament and first since 1995.
Last season, TA took it a step further, going 19-3 and finishing as the Region 3C runner-up — an accomplishment that gave the Knights their first state tournament appearance in program history.
This season, however, Turner Ashby had to replace three key players from that team — Rachel Showalter, Carter Young and Valeria Santos — and added a pair of newcomers in Anna Phillips and Jordyn Sizemore.
“So much of it is surreal,” Clark said. “As a coach, you go into every season with optimism, but there’s always this nagging doubt. It’s like, ‘Will we really pull it off?’ There were a lot of doubters when some of our best players didn’t return. That includes, deep down, ourselves. We were like, ‘How are we going to be able to do this?’”
On Monday, the Knights took one step closer toward a return to this year’s Virginia High School League Class 3 tournament with a 5-3 win over Monticello in the Region 3C quarterfinals in Bridgewater.
With the victory, TA advances to the district semifinals on Wednesday, where it will hit the road to take on Western Albemarle. A win would clinch a second straight trip to the state tournament.
“I think they’re peaking at the right time,” Clark said. “Throughout the year, we’d have these matches where one or two of them would have a bad match, one of them was sick, maybe injured. I kept telling them, ‘When all six of you show up emotionally and physically, we will be a force to be reckoned with.’ And they were.”
The Knights’ ladder is led by their seniors — Emma Nesselrodt, Malena Hoover, Grace Pierantoni and Tori Moats — while sophomores Anna Phillips and Jordyn Sizemore sit in the No. 4 and No. 6 slots.
Nesselrodt and Hoover went to the Region 3C doubles semifinals last season and all four seniors have been part of the TA program since Clark’s hiring as coach in 2017.
“We’ve been through a lot together, grown this team together,” Clark said. “These kids just grew with me through my ups and my downs and my failures and my strengths. … All four of them decided they weren’t going to lay their rackets down in May. They worked hard for this.
“That has never happened at Turner Ashby before. They played all summer, all fall, all winter. What you’re seeing is a group of kids that have reworked the culture here at TA when it comes to tennis. We wouldn’t be where we are today without that work ethic and that dedication that these kids showed.”
It didn’t always appear that the Knights would have a team capable of making a deep postseason run as they went through an up-and-down regular season and entered the district tournament as the No. 2 seed behind Fort Defiance.
In the tournament, however, the Knights managed to defeat the Indians 5-3 in the championship match and the momentum carried over into Monday’s regional match.
“We were kind of the underdogs coming into this year, not really expecting to do a whole lot,” Nesselrodt said. “Winning these big matches proves to us and proves to other teams that we’re a force to be reckoned with.
“Teams came in thinking they had guaranteed wins at certain seeds. They were quickly surprised by the amount of talent we have on our team this year.”
One of the biggest keys to TA’s late-season success has been the emergence of Phillips and Sizemore and their continued growth in the game.
“It’s so crazy,” Nesselrodt said. “They just picked it up so quickly and I think it has a lot to do with their motivation. They want to be good, want to learn. They’ve watched us and have seen us win, get excited and how much we enjoy this sport. They want to be exactly like that. I think their improvement has really shown.”
Against the Mustangs, Sizemore defeated Monticello’s Parker Harrison 6-4, 6-4 while Phillips won by medical forfeit.
Pierantoni, who serves as a captain for the Knights alongside Nesselrodt and got a 6-2, 6-2 win at No. 3 singles on Monday, said she started playing tennis as a sophomore and has been blown away by the growth of the program.
Entering her senior year, however, she recalled a moment during an offseason practice where she watched some of the younger players and worried about how her final year playing at Turner Ashby would go.
“It’s been really nerve-racking,” Pierantoni said. “I definitely think all of us seniors at the beginning of the year were like, ‘Ugh. This is a rough way to go out.’ It’s just made the victories so much better because we’ve worked so hard for them. They’ve improved so much and I’m so proud of them.”
Hoover and Moats also got a pair of wins at No. 2 and No. 4 singles in TA’s match against Monticello while Pierantoni and Phillips got a 6-4, 6-1 win at No. 2 doubles to cap off the day.
The Knights’ resiliency was on display in their district championship win over Fort Defiance as they trailed in all three doubles matches before Pierantoni and Phillips rallied for a 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 win to clinch the match victory.
“They’re playing their best tennis because all six of them are really playing at peak performance,” Clark said. “They’re not giving up. They’re fighting through when they get down. … It just says a lot about the character of these kids. They just don’t quit. At the beginning of the year, I didn’t know what to expect. I think that’s exactly what happened.”
As Turner Ashby (15-4) prepares to take on Western Albemarle — a team that is 16-1 and hasn’t lost since an 8-1 setback to Hanover in its season opener on March 15 — Pierantoni said the seniors are trying to enjoy each moment.
“That’s one thing that’s been different for us this year,” Pierantoni said. “We’ve been such a connected team. We’re definitely realizing that we’re closing in on the end of the season, end of an era.”
That era for the Knights includes three straight trips to the regional tournament and possibly two state-tournament appearances.
In order to gain that second trip, Clark said TA needs to continue to play with the looseness and joy for the game that it has displayed over the past two weeks.
“The biggest thing is to have fun with it,” Clark said. “To me, so much of this is icing on the cake. Winning the district championship was such a satisfaction. The fact that we won our first game today — I told them this is no small feat. It may be easy to say we’re going to go in to Western Albemarle and get blown away, but why are you going to do that?”
Clark made it clear she wasn’t ready to reflect on the Knights as a team or the four seniors yet as she still thinks they have more tennis to play.
What she was able to do, however, was finally give a fair review of her team six weeks after sheepishly admitting that she wasn’t quite sure what to expect back in March.
“The past three or four weeks have been surreal,” Clark said. “I don’t want to say we didn’t expect it. We hoped for it and a part of us thought we could do it, but to actually see it come to fruition has been so rewarding.”
In other regional tennis Monday:
Harrisonburg 5, Halifax County 4: Andrea Osinkosky and Sarah Earle got a win at No. 1 doubles and Heather Whetzel and Evgeniya Untilova got a win at No. 2 as Harrisonburg upset Halifax County 5-4 in the Region 5D quarterfinals in South Boston.
Earle, Whetzel and Lucia Gabel also got singles wins for the Blue Streaks (8-7), who will travel to take on Massaponax in the regional semifinals on Thursday with a state-tournament berth on the line.
Spotswood 5, Fort Defiance 4: Spotswood pulled off a shocking upset with a 5-4 win over Fort Defiance in the Region 3C quarterfinals at FDHS.
The Trailblazers (11-7) will travel to Brookville for the regional semifinals on Wednesday while the the Indians finish the year with a 15-4 record.
Monticello 5, Turner Ashby 4: In Bridgewater, Turner Ashby’s season came to a close with a 5-4 loss to Monticello in the Region 3C quarterfinals.
The Knights finish the year as the Valley District tournament champions and two wins shy of a trip to the state tournament. They had a 15-4 overall record.
Albemarle 5, Harrisonburg 1: Harrisonburg’s season ended with a 5-1 loss to Albemarle in the Region 5D quarterfinals in Charlottesville.
The Blue Streaks finished the season 9-4 overall.
Western Albemarle 5, Spotswood 0: Spotswood saw its season end with a 5-0 loss to state-championship contender Western Albemarle in the Region 3C quarterfinals in Crozet.
The Trailblazers finished the season 8-11.