It’s one of the perks that comes with qualifying for the high school girls tennis state tournament. High school players get to perform on the same Lindner Family Tennis Center courts as their favorite professionals ranging from Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to Simona Halep to Garbiñe Muguruza.
Oakwood High School junior Sophie Russell – one of the Jills who attends the Western and Southern Open – tracks which pro has played or practiced on which court.
“That always feels really cool to know you’re hitting on the same courts they were,” Russell said. “We’re always here in August.”
The Jills, as it turns out, are always there in October, too.
Since the girls state tennis championships started in 1976, Oakwood has qualified for 32 of the 44 tournaments. The Jills sent three players to this year’s Division II state tournament with juniors Lily McCloskey in singles and juniors Natalie Connelly and Russell in doubles.
McCloskey extended Oakwood’s impressive state tradition as a three-time qualifier. Connelly and Russell qualified for the first time.
“It’s crazy,” McCloskey said of the talent level that kicks it up a few notches compared to the demanding district tournament. “It’s really fun to see just how many good girls there are here. The atmosphere is so fun. The fact it’s on professional courts is so cool. It’s crazy to see Federer and Nadal playing here and then get to play here myself.”
Connelly and Russell reached Saturday’s state semifinal round with a pair of impressive victories Friday. The No. 2 seeds beat the No. 4-team of sophomore Morgan Dobos and freshman Maddie Kavenagh of Richfield Revere 6-1, 6-0. They knocked off Toledo Central Catholic sophomores Bella Spinazze and Lucia Spinazze 6-1, 6-2 to reach the semis.
Connelley and Russell lost in straight sets in Saturday’s state semis to Rachel Buchinsky and Ellie Brotherton of Shaker Heights Laurel.
“Sophie is fiercely intense. Natalie dictates the point and has the most amazing net play,” Oakwood coach Kim Gilbert said. “They were absolutely determined (to qualify for state).”
Oakwood has two state champions in its history. The doubles team of Christy Whalen and Lesley Whalen won in 1998. Singles player Kelsey Haviland was the most recent in 2004.
“I like knowing I’m Oakwood and I represent Oakwood,” Russell said of adding to the Jills’ tradition. “People know who (Oakwood is). I think it gives you confidence going into the match. We have a great support team of parents, family and friends who are out there watching and cheering.”
Gilbert called Connelly one of the top-five net players she’s ever coached. Connelly was at it again Friday with a devastating shot that continuously went between and left both opponents handcuffed. In addition to that tradition, having solid teammates to practice against certainly helps.
“We’ve got a great team so it’s nice because you always have really good hitting partners in practice,” Connelly said. “Our coach is really great. She sets us up practices with doubles teams from other schools so we get a lot of good experience.”
As for McCloskey, she played her trademark style on Friday – tenacious, determined and never giving in – during a first-round loss to Pepper Pike Orange senior and No. 3 seed Blessing Nwaozuzu. McCloskey trailed 5-2 in the first set before rallying. McCloskey held off seven set points before falling 7-5 in the first set. She trailed 5-0 in the second set before falling 6-3, again fighting off match points several times.
“It’s not easy for anyone to make it to state, let alone to make it three years in a row,” Gilbert said. “It’s actually quite impressive.”
After the match the chair umpire called McCloskey over to give her a few parting words.
“He told me I had a really good match and he was really impressed with how hard I fought,” McCloskey said.
A pair of area players qualified for state in D-I, led by Springboro sophomore Abby Nugent. She beat Painesville Riverside senior Angelica Ross 1-6, 6-0, 6-2 in the first round. She reached Saturday’s state semis with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Toledo Notre Dame Academy freshman Lilly Black.
Fairmont junior Dasha Dotsenko lost her opening match to North Canton Hoover senior Laurel Utterback 6-0, 6-0.
Also in D-II, Eaton freshman Macy Hitchcock lost her first-round match to two-time defending state champ Nicole Gillinov, a senior from Shaker Heights Hathaway Brown, 6-1, 6-2.
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