A worn and shabby tennis ball flies out of bounds. Peachtree Ridge’s Abigail Owens drops to the dimly lit pavement in a disheveled manner. Simultaneously, Summer Ralston and the supporting Roswell crowd erupt into a blissful cry. The remainder of the Roswell girls varsity tennis team rushes the court and encircle Ralston - their state championship dreams had finally come to fruition.
The Hornets arrived at the Clayton County Tennis Center on the overcast afternoon of May 12 with a 20-game winning streak and a state championship on the line. After a brief rain delay, the girls handily defeated the Lowdes County Vikings in state semi-finals in a quick 3-0 rout. A match against the Peachtree Ridge Lions for the state title, pitting the top two teams in the state against each other, was all but a certainty.
Behind the play of line one singles player Laura Patterson and the doubles duo of Anmal Narang and Sammi Taylor, the Hornets and Lions remained deadlocked at 2-2 as the line two singles contest between Owens and Ralston raged on.
After winning the first set tiebreaker, Ralston was unable to clinch the match and in turn the championship, when up 5-4 in the second set. Owens rallied for a second set win to remain alive. With a set apiece, Owens and Ralston began the third and final set with the state championship hanging in the balance. Despite a quick start, Ralston fell behind 4-3. With a hushed Roswell crowd awaiting the conclusion of the match, junior varsity tennis instructor Parrish Preston observed, "Two games for the state championship. Just two games, that’s it. Man, talk about pressure. You have to have some guts to be out there right now battling like these two girls." On the brink of elimination and heartbreak, Ralston battled from behind to beat Owens in a 7-5 nail biter.
With the match over and a championship in hand, Ralston described her performance as "nerve racking" and "tiring." "Pure adrenaline," said Ralston, kept her going throughout the three-hour contest against Owens.
"You cannot get much closer than that," said overjoyed seven-year Roswell Coach Derek Shackelford after Ralston’s clinching victory. "I am just so excited for these girls. It’s a dream season. We are 22-0. Who does that?"
The state title does not begin to demonstrate the success the team had on the court this season. Their victory against Peachtree Ridge in the finals cemented the team’s 22-0 record and undefeated season, a feat that had never been accomplished in Roswell tennis history. Including the state tournament, the team also won the Peachtree City Tournament, the LaGrange Tournament, and the Lassiter Tournament. Furthermore, Roswell posted a perfect 6-0 region record on the way to a 6-AAAAA region title against the likes of teams such as Milton, Northview, and West Forsyth.
Roswell’s dream season was truly a year of unimaginable accomplishments. The state championship marks the first state championship in the program’s lengthy history. A March 8 5-0 sweep of the Milton Eagles marked the first time in fifteen years that the team had beaten the region rival.
More incredibly, Roswell was able to snap the Walton program’s extensive unbeaten streak. An electrifying 3-2 victory against powerhouse Walton in the quarterfinals of the State tournament on May 3 brought the Raider’s astounding 158 game-winning streak to a close. The winning streak, which encompassed almost a decade, was the result of eight consecutive undefeated seasons and state championships. The streak, in fact, was the longest winning streak in Georgia high school sports history and led to Walton’s induction into the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame last summer.
"I’ve never seen such a display of heart," said Shackelford, who had high praise for his team after their overthrow of Walton.
Despite coaching the first championship team in the program's history, Coach Shackelford remains humble, insisting that his player’s determination and hard work has paved the way.
"These girls are so committed. They don’t just practice an hour at the school and then go home. They go out after our team practices to play with private coaches and hit more. That’s dedication and heart, a lot of heart," said Shackelford.
Shackelford also attributes the teams overall success to the influx of youthful players meshing with the veterans already on the roster.
"We had Diana Sas move from Romania and then three incredible freshman move in, which really solidified us top to bottom," said Shackelford. "The team chemistry has just fallen into place with a great mixture of new players and veteran leadership."
The Roswell attack this season was led by senior co-captains Mckinsey Fiveash and Sammi Lantz, who were both four year varsity players. Fiveash, who was the teams line three singles player, believes the team benefitted this season from a strong unity and bond.
"Every player on our team is strong and devoted. This year everyone is more focused on not only winning, but also having fun," said Fiveash.
So what now for the reining state champions? The team will enter the 2013 season next winter as defending State and region 6-AAAAA champions. After an undefeated 2012 season filled with extraordinary play, high expectations will certainly await the 2013 squad. The team may also be in for some growing pains next season, with six of the current 13 players on the roster graduating this week.
"We're going to be good next year," said a confident Shackelford. "Even though we are losing six seniors, we are going to get in two really good freshmen next year."
The team is far from ill prepared for the challenges ahead next season. The success that the freshmen trio of Narang, Taylor, and Madison Gulick have had this year bodes will for Shackelford and the Roswell tennis program. Upperclassmen and seasoned varsity players Patterson, Ralston, Bridget Johnson and Rachel Deese will provide valuable veteran leadership for a very young 2013 squad. The combination of youthful, developing talent and seasoned veteran players seems like the perfect ingredients for a possible Roswell tennis dynasty.
While Shackelford does not go as far as labeling the program as the next Georgia high school tennis powerhouse, he is satisfied in what the future of the program holds.
"By the way, we have this little thing at Roswell High School called girls tennis...and we win championships," he said.