*Editor’s note: With local schools closed due to coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns, all 2020 spring sports seasons are currently on hold. However, The Erwin Record still wanted to recognize Unicoi County High School teams and players with this annual section.
By Trey Williams
Former Unicoi County standout tennis player Mallory Jackson will be on Unicoi County tennis coach Karla Keesecker’s staff this year, and she sounds about as excited to be coaching as she was while winning back-to-back TSSAA state doubles titles in 2013-14.
“This is my first year coaching, and so far I’ve loved it,” said Jackson, who played in college at Carson-Newman. “They’re amazing kids and players. Coach Keesecker and I have pushed them on and off court. They’ve never complained and always give their all. I’ve seen major improvement in every player during the last month of training.”
The girls team is led by seniors Brandolyn Thomas, Katlyn Higgins and Natalia Hernandez, who could play at Nos. 1-3, respectively.
“The senior girls have been great leaders to our new players,” Keesecker said.
Sophomore Lilly Hollenbeck is the only other returning player.
“The girls should be solid throughout the whole lineup,” Jackson said. “Brandolyn will be a strong first seed. She’s got powerful groundstrokes and focus on court. Katlyn’s serve is strong and consistent. Natalia has fantastic speed and concentration during our footwork drills, and I believe that will transfer really well into matches.”
A quartet of freshmen – Olivia Bailey, Karina Lopez, Katie Hensley and Gabby Mitchell – will compete for the final two slots.
“Coach Jackson and I are very proud of the way each player has worked hard during practices this season,” Keesecker said. “They are striving to improve each time they step on the court. Their hard work is sure to be rewarded once our season officially begins.”
With only five players on the roster, the Blue Devils boys will be hamstrung by a numbers game.
“Coach Jackson and I are proud of the way the boys have improved during our practices this season,” Keesecker said. “With only five boys this season, they have a tough challenge ahead, but we are confident they are up to it.”
Junior Daniel Shults will begin the season at No. 1 singles. Senior Toby Tipton is slotted at No. 2.
“Our boys are great workers on the court,” Jackson said. “Daniel’s footwork is quick and his groundstrokes are solid. Toby has a great deal of speed all over the court.”
Junior Matthew Sutphin will likely start the year at No. 3. He is one of two returnees, along with Shults.
“Matthew’s height is coming in handy for net play,” Jackson said. “He has awesome poaching skills. I’m excited to see his doubles matches.”
Juniors Nicholas Bender and Ethan McQueen round out the quintet.
“Daniel Shults and Matthew Sutphin are our only returning players this year,” Keesecker said. “They are ready to lead the boys team. We are excited to have Toby Tipton, Nicholas Bender and Ethan McQueen join the team this year. They have been working hard in practice and we are excited to see their progress once the season officially begins.”
Jackson doubled her pleasure by teaming up with Emily Lynch to defeat Knoxville Grace Christian’s Lexie Hill and Shelby Rodgers, 6-4, 1-6, 7-5, for a state title in 2014 after teaming with Nela Holkova for a doubles title in 2013. Jackson reached the state final in singles in 2012 and three times overall in doubles.
But now she anticipates her homecoming debut offering many happy returns.
“Overall, I’m eager for the upcoming season,” Jackson said. “They’ve worked so hard, and I’m already proud of their efforts.”