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Despite COVID, girls turn out for tennis at ETHS

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The stock market goes up and down, and so do the poll numbers of the political candidates leading up to the national election in November.

But the numbers have never been better for one athletic program at Evanston Township High School, despite the uncertainty surrounding the fall sports season created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Social distancing, reduced fields for invitational tournaments and the use of one set of tennis balls per team at ETHS are just part of the “new normal” that the Wildkits will be dealing with.

But they’ve got the numbers to deal with just about anything. More than 100 girls turned out for preseason tryouts for the girls tennis program, a record amount, and the hardest part for second-year head coach Leanne Baker will be finding enough matches for them to play in and enough buses to travel in.

Whether those numbers add up to a winning season isn’t as important as you might think to Baker, who sees her role as helping to grow the sport and giving opportunities for playing what can turn into a “life” sport even for those not skilled enough to crack the varsity lineup.

“We didn’t make any cuts (creating a JV II team to go with the varsity, JV and freshman squads), and for the first time we’re having morning practices just because we have so many kids,” said Baker prior to today’s 2020 season debut at Loyola Academy. “This year is so different and I feel like they should all have a chance to play.

“We have a lot of first-timers from the other sports like basketball and hockey, a little bit of everything. We’re only allowed 25 in one spot at the same time, that’s why we had to stagger the practices. There will be no spectators allowed, you have to bring your own water, and you’ll only be able to touch certain balls. It’s a weird situation.

“Courts were open this summer, but the hardest thing was not knowing if we’d have a season or not. I really didn’t think we’d have a season this year. We’re very, very grateful we can play. All the coaches I’ve talked to are very gratified just to have even a modified season. The biggest challenge is just to roll with it when things (obstacles) come up. It will be a miracle if we go through this season with no hiccups, but this year it’s not about tennis, it’s about keeping each other safe.”

The Illinois High School Association still hasn’t determined whether there will be a state tournament series in any sport this fall, with that decision likely to come in the next couple of weeks. That possibility doesn’t deter Baker.

“We’re going to play out the season just like we always have,” she said. “We’re assuming there’s going to be a state tournament, and we’ll play our strongest teams in our conference matches. And we do know we’ll have a conference tournament at the end of the year.”

The Wildkit girls return three key players from last year’s squad, which fell short of sending anyone to the Illinois High School Association state finals for the first time in 7 years. Two members of the sectional team, singles player Danina Hughes and doubles standout Julia Demopoulos, are back along with junior Lucinda Lindland.

Lindland and Hughes figure to play at No. 1 and No. 2 singles, respectively. Lindland played in the No. 1 slot most of last year but missed several matches due to a conflict with club soccer and wasn’t available for the sectional tournament. She won’t have that dilemma this fall — no one’s playing soccer anywhere in Illinois for the forseeable future.

“Lucinda is an elite soccer player and I understood why she missed some matches,” said Baker. “We had playoffs to decide the No. 1 and No. 2 spots and she won every match (in preseason practice). She’s fast, she keeps the ball in the court and she’s such a tough competitor. And Danina played No. 1 at times last year, too. She’s really worked hard to get better over the summer.”

Another player to watch is sophomore Mia Tingley. She held the No. 1 singles position for the junior varsity team a year ago and might be the most improved player on the squad, after taking Baker’s advice to up her game by playing against better competition this summer.

Demopoulos’ impact on the lineup won’t be felt for another couple of weeks. She teamed up with her graduated sister, Sophia, as the No. 1 doubles squad a year ago but she’s currently self-quarantining. Demopoulos is adhering to the Chicago emergency travel order after visiting North Carolina, where COVID 19 cases were up, and hasn’t yet practiced at ETHS.

Other players expected to challenge for singles playing time include Sofia Lydon, Lucia Goldberg and Anna Grant-Bolton.

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Dennis Mahoney

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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