Any time the girls on the Williamsville North tennis team need to be reminded of what to do on their home court, they need only look down at the cement along the fence as they're walking in.
That's where there are designs the Spartans have drawn in chalk, all of which feature their names and some one-word mental tennis tips. For freshman Kiran Malhi it's "backhand," for junior Kelsey Till it's "lobs." The personalization doesn't stop there, for instance, freshman first doubles player Jackie Mistretta has made sure anyone who sees her buzzword of "placement" also reads "I love Derek Jeter."
"We like to do that before the season, we ask them to think about one thing that they need to work and focus on and they write it with their names," North coach Hilary Nichols said. "It's kind of become a tradition."
The team put the reminders on the court at the beginning of the season, but recently had to redo them. By the end of this season, the Spartans might be able to make a much more permanent mark on their program.
For the first time in Nichols' five years at North, the school is challenging league titans Orchard Park and Clarence for the top spot in ECIC I. Last Wednesday the Spartans played their most important match in a long time, hosting Orchard Park in a battle for first place. OP edged North, 3-2, and the teams meet again today at Orchard Park.
Last week's battle lasted until 7:15, as the second singles match between North junior Esha Dasgupta and OP's Caroline Bristol, an eighth-grader, went back and forth, back and forth and back and forth.
The groundstroke-grinding pair exchanged shot after shot despite the setting sun, Dasgupta's cramping left calf and Bristol's first-time experience of having a big match on her tiny shoulders. Nothing seemed to prevent patient rallies that ended with some excellent passing shots. Once, an empty plastic ball container loudly rolled onto the court in front of Dasgupta, who swatted it aside before continuing a point. Soon after, a stray ball from another court rolled in front of Bristol's feet, but she swiped it away in time to return a shot.
Today's match -- and whether or not North will have a shot at the league title -- could very well again come down to the pair at second singles. A healthier Dasgupta -- she had won the first set before the cramp forced her to sit down on the court at every changeover -- might make the difference, but Bristol certainly proved herself.
"She's a seasoned player," OP coach Sandy Trampert said of Bristol, who played varsity first doubles last year. "She's got the right mentality to pull those kind of matches out: lots of patience, placement, the sort of attitude that 'I'm going to hang in here until the very end' and always cheerful. She doesn't get down on herself. That's just her."
North is led by first singles player Tina Miller, an eighth-grader who was the youngest girl to win the ECIC title last season. Third singles player Allison Cornwall, a standout on the Spartans basketball team, has toiled hard at her game despite not playing year-round like most players.
Orchard Park lost four seniors from last year's varsity but still has top singles player Brittany Klotzbach and its traditional depth, which it showed when it won both doubles matches from North. Clarence was edged by North, 3-2; the teams meet again at North on Oct. 5.
"The big schools -- OP and Clarence -- have been the leaders for as long as I've been here," Nichols said. "We squeezed by Clarence. The second time, both teams are going to be dangerous."
> Around the courts
Williamsville East, which owns wins over North and Orchard Park, is again the top team in the ECIC, cruising along at 6-0, all by 5-0 scores. The Flames had an 11th undefeated season last year. Freshman Monica Veith is playing first singles for the second straight season for second-year coach Marnie Belle-Isle. . . . Williamsville South, led by senior first singles player Katie McDonald, has dominated ECIC III by also winning its first five league matches by 5-0 scores. . . . Nichols has beaten many of the best of Western New York this year: Orchard Park (3-2), Clarence (4-1), Williamsville South (4-1), Hamburg (3-2) and Kenmore West (4-1). . . . Kenmore West junior Lauren Bates, who has gone unbeaten for the last two seasons, is back to defend the Section VI championship she beat Miller for last year. . . . Lancaster junior Jen Ickowski is an all-ECIC player back for her fourth year at first singles. . . . The Niagara Frontier League joined the ECIC in five-match scoring in each team match this season. So far the action in the competitive league has resulted in no team going undefeated. Returning second-team NFL all-stars Emily Thompson, Katie Molinaro and Camille Sarkees, all seniors, have helped Niagara Falls get off to a great start. The Wolverines have already won as many matches as they did during last year's 5-6-3 campaign. . . . Singles player Sarah Shaw was one of five returners for always-deep Lockport while junior first singles player Brittany Walters is just one of two players back for defending champion Kenmore East. . . . Eden is undefeated after its first trip around ECIC IV.