Surveys about what former high school athletes most cherish about their sports experience generally come up with the same answer. And, it is not personal accomplishments or heroics or winning big games or championships. It’s developing relationships, getting to know teammates and coaches through long bus trips, team dinners and team bonding exercises.
These relationships were another victim of COVID-19 when the virus forced the cancelation of spring sports at the end of last school year.
For South Whidbey High School tennis coach Karyle Kramer, not getting to spend one last season with the class of 2020 was especially difficult.
Kramer noted that all senior classes are special and she and her assistant coaches “feel a closeness” with each, but she knew last spring’s seniors “for more than four years and in more ways than just tennis and teaching.”
Kramer’s son Levi is also a member of the class of 2020 and went all through school with many of last spring’s girls tennis team.
“He’s good friends with some of them, so I’ve known them in a social setting,” Kramer said. “I’ve observed them in band concerts, on sports teams and during summer activities. I remember many of them in the elementary classrooms and taught many of them as students in high school. They were also enrolled in (parks department) tennis classes I taught. Their parents are also special to me — we’ve grown up together and have shared life experiences.”
Kramer added that assistant coaches Jenny Gochanour and Rachael Clements also grew up on South Whidbey and “have some of the same ties I do.”
“They both have had daughters on our tennis team in past seasons,” Kramer said. “We are aware of the bond that we coaches have as well as the unique team of seniors.”
In July, three months after the season was canceled, Kramer said, “Most of us have grieved and accepted the missed season. While it was disappointing to miss out on that experience, the players have graduated and are looking ahead to their next phase of life. They all have the opportunity to continue to play tennis — it is called a lifelong sport for a reason.
“I think we also realize that while it’s a disappointment, the situation could be a lot worse. There are significant challenges for today’s graduates; I believe they recognize that, overall, this was a bump in their journey and ultimately they will be stronger for it.”
Senior Chloe Loehr, the 2020 team captain, said she was “shocked” when the season was canceled.
“Spring was my favorite time of the school year because I got to work with some of the most amazing athletic coaches and kind-hearted people South Whidbey has to offer every day,” Loehr said. “It was hard to come to the realization that I will never get to experience that again and that closure from the tennis team was going to be done alone and not at a banquet with my teammates.”
“It taught me to live in the moment,” she added. “I am a ‘what’s next’ kinda thinker, and this year has taught me to slow down and enjoy the moments you do have because the future is not guaranteed.”
Here’s what Kramer had to say about this special group:
Aly Johnson and Drayah Artis joined the team as juniors.
“Aly and Drayah are great examples of teenagers who wanted to try a new sport,” Kramer said. “As older JV players, I couldn’t ask for better role models for the underclassmen. It takes courage to try a new sport midway through high school.”
Third-year player Alison Papritz, Kramer noted, is the only class member to earn a state tennis berth, placing second in doubles with Mary Zisette (who graduated in 2019) in 2018, Papritz’s first year of competitive tennis.
In addition, Kramer said, Papritz won two district doubles titles and a bi-district title.
Seven seniors were members of the team all four years of high school.
McKenna Kelley impressed Kramer with her eagerness to help the program.
“She’s willing to hit with any level player, help feed tennis balls in a drill or organize something for us,” Kramer said. “I appreciate McKenna’s honesty and willingness to never give up. She’s a fighter.”
Ashley Ricketts held down the No. 1 singles spot in 2019 and battled the opponents’ top player each match.
“She grew from her losses and was stronger by the end of the season and earned second place in districts and competed at the bi-district tournament,” Kramer said. “Ashley performs well under pressure and likes to compete.”
Loehr was a steady contributor who saw “the program’s needs above her own,” according to Kramer. “She is competitive and an excellent leader.”
Like many of the players, Oliana Stange was involved in numerous other activities, and tennis helped her unwind, according to Kramer.
“Oliana brings a lot of laughter to the team, though she is serious and focused as well. One day I heard her dad (Coupeville coach Ken Stange) call her ‘O,’ and it just stuck. I think of her as ‘O’ now.”
Chandra Wallace concentrates well, is dedicated and is deceivingly quiet, Kramer said.
“Once she steps on the court she seems even more confident,” Kramer said. “She is consistent and brings leadership and strong role modeling for underclassmen.”
Annika LeWarne was “steady, joyful and just an all-around delight to have on the team,” Kramer said. “She is willing to play wherever I need her to, and she gets along well with teammates. She is a team player and often thinks of ways she can positively contribute to our team, school and community.”
Jenna Pfeiffer blossomed during her career, according to Kramer, showing consistent improvement in her game and conduct.
“She analyzes her game — and her opponents ’— and she attempts to adjust accordingly,” Kramer said. “She is thoughtful and considerate and a positive member of our team.”
Some of the seniors gave their input:
“I started playing because of how nice all the girls on the team are and because of how amazing the coaches are.
“I think my class is one of the most including and accepting groups that has come through the tennis program. We all have super positive attitudes, which makes it very fun to play with each other. We are also one of the most motivated and dedicated classes, in sports and otherwise, that I have seen in our school.
“My coaches have taught me what it means to be a team player, and I don’t mean in tennis. The tennis team and coaches have taught me that being a genuinely kind person is more important than anything. Caring about each other is what the tennis team is all about, it’s an amazing support system.”
“I think our senior class is extremely unique because we are all such good, kind kids. Our principal has told us many times it is the best class he has seen go through South Whidbey High School. There is so much respect shown between the seniors on our tennis team, and we all have a common goal: to have fun. Even if it is a competitive sport, we are all just trying to have a good time.
“I have learned what it really looks like to want someone to succeed. Sometimes in sports it is difficult to remove your competitive nature and truly want others to perform their best, because it may challenge your own position on the team. But from the other girls, I have seen how they root and cheer for their teammates and how much they truly want everyone to do their best.
“I will remember playing doubles with my partner Mary Zisette and all of the long spring nights spent eating snacks and cheering on my teammates after our matches were done.”
“I decided to play my junior year because I heard that it was such a positive environment and fun sport to play. I stuck with the sport because of all the generous kindness from the coaches and inviting teammates.
“I feel that since our senior group is full of such kind people, it makes the sport 10 times better to play.
“I have learned a couple of things from this program…always show good sportsmanship…a positive environment makes activities way more enjoyable…(and) being competitive is not a bad thing as long as you show respect to your teammates.”
“I feel like our class is very supportive of each other and of the other players on the team. Even though our class has been split between varsity and junior varsity over the years, it hasn’t stopped us from being there to cheer each other on and support each other in matches or in practice. I also believe we all just enjoy being together and having fun while playing a sport that we’ve all grown to love.
“Besides learning a lot about tennis (which I knew nothing about until I started playing on the high school team), I’ve learned that being prepared physically and mentally is really important in life.
“I will definitely remember how welcoming and encouraging the team and our coaches are. Tennis has given me the opportunity to get to know people who I likely wouldn’t have talked to much otherwise. I’ll also remember how much I enjoyed trying a new sport, which would usually be way out of my comfort zone.”
“I think every senior on the team, no matter their skill level, plays an important role in making everyone feel welcome and have an enjoyable time. We full-heartedly want every person there to have fun as well as develop life skills.
“Tennis has helped me a lot with self-discipline and perseverance.
“The thing I will remember most is it’s OK not to win if you are evolving. Not saying I enjoy losing a match or it doesn’t affect me, but you have to look past a loss and learn from it and be better the next time around.”
Kramer said she will always remember the group as “young people first — their personalities, the memories we shared and their kind spirits. They are fun and funny. They are easy going and good leaders.”
Their leadership was evident at the beginning of last season when they asked how to include the underclassmen in various team bonding activities, Kramer said.
“That’s just how they roll — strong leadership and moral compasses,” Kramer said.
The coach said she will always remember what the group lost, “not just on the courts but as seniors in high school,” when the season was canceled.