One need look no further than the dusty construction site adjacent to the tennis complex at Liberty Hill High School for an indicator of how the Panthers program continues to grow.
Four new courts are being added to the existing eight, which will allow Liberty Hill head coach Sherry Rhoden even more space to continue cultivating what has already become a flourishing program under her guidance.
With 70 players in the high school ranks and another 100 in middle school, there are many faces roaming about on the purple hardcourts on a typical afternoon as more and more young athletes are finding a place to call home.
As the Panthers’ varsity kicks off the fall team tennis season, freshman Lily Tobin is one of the newcomers – although she’s already familiar with her new surrounding after having played for Santa Rita Middle School’s squad before matriculating to the high-school campus.
Despite the fact she’s already logged countless hours on the courts there, she’s still experiencing the newness and excitement of being a high-school varsity player, she said.
“At this level, it’s more challenging,” said Tobin. “But it’s also a lot more fun.”
Tobin began playing tennis in seventh grade after her family moved south from Minnesota to escape the harsh winters and was looking to pick up a new athletic activity after having previously played soccer.
“You don’t have to hit the hardest or be the strongest to be a good tennis player,” she said. “It’s more about the strategy, like a game of chess.”
Rhoden said Tobin’s ability to play a strong mental game gives her an advantage over opponents that aren’t yet as advanced in that aspect.
“Lily has excellent court knowledge after having already put in so many hours on the court – be it practice or matches,” said Rhoden. “A lot of players her age don’t really know the game yet, but she’s always striving to be better than she was yesterday.”
In addition, Tobin brings an energy to the team that belies her relative inexperience, she said.
“She’s just full of joy and exudes it,” said Rhoden. “It’s really impressive to see a freshman come in want success for everyone like she does.”
Johnathan Allaire is a junior who has already been around the block with the Panthers, playing both tennis and basketball and said the reason he decided to try out a court of a different kind was after a sibling did the same.
“My older brother Josh played tennis here and I always wanted to be teammates with him in something,” said Allaire. “So, I finally got that opportunity.”
Allaire still plays basketball and enjoys the contrast between both sports.
“I love the intensity of basketball – it’s five-on-five out there and you’re working together with your teammates,” he said. “You can really just get after it, but with tennis you have to be a little more calm and take things one step at a time with more of a controlled aggression.”
According to Rhoden, Allaire does well in blending aspects from what makes him successful in hoops to tennis.
“Johnathan really likes to attack the ball,” said Rhoden. “He’s been able to take his aggressiveness from basketball and learned when to use it and when to strategize.”
However, Allaire doesn’t want to just compete – he wants to be victorious whenever he and his teammates step onto the court.
“Building a winning culture is very important to me,” he said. “I’ve always been very competitive and want to take something as far as I can. Tennis is already fun, but winning is more fun.”
Rhoden is currently in her fourth season leading the Panthers and has successfully stewarded the program, with an increase of 40 high-school players when she took over to the 70 that now fill the rosters of the varsity and JV teams and from the beginning has had a primary objective of creating a family-like atmosphere, which has also come to fruition and is blooming better than ever, she said.
“We have a lot of social butterflies on this team,” said Rhoden. “All the kids like each other and get along great.”
In addition to the new courts, the tennis team will have its own locker room for the first time with the renovation of the spring field house, which further illustrates the growth curve the program has followed, said Rhoden.
“Up until now, my classroom has basically been our locker room,” she said. “So, it’s absolutely wonderful to finally have a place we can call our own.”