Photo: Members of the Etowah High girls tennis gathers for a photo prior to the Class 4A/5A Section 6 Tournament this past week. Pic-tured, from left: Abrianna Irvin, Naudia Kimbril, Kimberly Johnson, Riley Epperson, Xena Robinson, Meg Higgins, Jacey Huff, Emma Hasse. (Submitted photo)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
The Etowah High School girls tennis program has come a long way from its humble origins in Reece City six years ago.
After completing an undefeated regular season in Class 4A/5A Section 6 play with wins over Sardis, Boaz, Cherokee County, DAR, Douglas and Guntersville, the Lady Blue Devils were in position to win the program’s first-ever section title on Thursday, April 14 in Boaz.
A victory would qualify the team for the Class 4A state tournament starting this Monday (April 18) in Mobile, where Etowah has one goal on its radar.
“We want to win state,” said senior and six-year starter Meg Higgins, who holds down the No. 2 singles position.
Higgins, who has been a member of the team since the seventh grade, said the 2022 team’s success this year is bittersweet for her.
“I’m excited for the future but I’m going to miss this team because we’ve done so well this year. “I’ve built a lot of strong relationships with these girls, and we’ve become really close.”
Higgins is an original member of the program after former EHS athletic director Drew Noles informed her that he was planning on starting a tennis program.
“It was during the summer at an FCA camp when he asked me if I wanted to be on the team, and I said yes. We used to practice in Reece City, and we were terrible, but we worked hard and built the team, and it’s been fun ever since.”
EHS tennis coach Beth Dayton played tennis at Emma Sansom High School in the 1980s.
“I tell everybody that I’ve got the greatest kids in the world,” she said. “They’re active in a lot of other things a school and they put their hearts and souls into everything they do. They’re also very much a family.”
Although only a sophomore, Abrianna Irvin is the team’s top gunner at No. 1 in singles. She won the Class 4A/5A state championship in 2019 as a seventh grader.
“It feels amazing to be a part of this team, which really feels more like a family,” she said. “It’s nice to see all of our hard work pay off this season.”
Dayton noted that Irvin is night and day on and off the tennis court.
“Abrianna is one of the sweetest, gentle-hearted and most polite kids you’ll ever meet, but she’s an absolute beast on the court. I’ve never seen anyone else like her. She’s ultra-competitive and hates to lose. I think the most anyone has gotten off of her so far this season is one or two games.”
Like Higgins, junior and No. 3 Jacey Huff has also been a member of the team since the seventh grade.
“A lot of the effort that we’ve been putting in at practice is starting to show,” she said. “We just want to keep improving.”
No. 6 junior Riley Epperson is a third-year member of the team.
“It feels amazing to come out here every day. We really work our tails off, and hopefully we’ll not just make it to state but win it. Honestly, this team is like my family. I really have a connection with all of these girls out here.”
Dayton said the team dwindled to six members last year following the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season.
“Like everyone else, [COVID] kind of threw us off,” she said. “The girls did the best they could, and now we have 15 girls on varsity and JV. So the team is growing, and we’re still trying to get the boys team back.”
Dayton pointed out that the Attalla community has played a key role in good a supporting the school’s sports program.
“Wal-Mart and Johnson’s have been great, and Bootsie’s had a fundraiser for us. That will really help us with expenses for state. I’ve worked in Attalla for 18 years, and I see all the time how the teachers and coaches support the athletes and love on the kids. The administration and school board and the mayor and city council have all been so supportive of our kids.”
“This season has been so great in watching everyone work hard and improve,” added junior Naudia Kimbril, a three-year member of the team. “It’s not like we just show up and play together; we all are friends outside of tennis. Tennis just made us more of a family. I know that I can rely on all of these girls and they can all rely on me.”
Dayton, the program’s coach for the past two seasons, pointed to assistant Erika Pinson as the behind-the-scenes force the drives the team’s success.
“I’m just the school person, but Erika provides the love and devotion and dedication to get these girls in shape and ready to play at the competition level they deserve. We’re very different and we call each other “ying” and “yang” but it works for us. Erika does a wonderful job, and she really keeps these girls on their toes.”
“I’m blessed to work with such wonderful children,” said Pinson. “I’m just lucky to be able to coach them.”