When the win-loss record is 71-6 on individual matches and 11-0 as a team, is it really appropriate to question the method – even if consuming multiple Dairy Queen dilly bars is part of the equation?
Defending champion Vail Mountain School heads to Grand Junction for Thursday and Friday’s Region 8 Women’s 3A Tennis Tournament as the presumed favorite, fielding a junior team that almost never loses and almost always hassle-free fun . Their joyous pursuit of excellence goes hand in hand with learning lifelong lessons, developing close friendships and, yes, taking ice cream bets between coaches and athletes (stay tuned).
“Our philosophy isn’t just about winning,” Hillary said.
“It’s about kids learning the sport, having fun and having good sportsmanship – win or lose.”
Of course, one of the consequences of great teaching, team spirit, and a healthy culture is, well, winning. Perennial regional powers Aspen and Steamboat have taken notice, and its coaches, athletes and even parents aren’t always thrilled to have company at the top. In fact, when VMS won their first regional title last year, finally taking the final step of their usual third- or fourth-place finish, a coach called for the scores to be recounted.
“They beat you by 42 points – that wasn’t even close,” the official replied.
Thirteen years ago, former DI tennis player Hillary McSpadden took over the program, which draws athletes from all four area high schools as well as VSSA. During that time, she and her husband Steve, along with Homestead’s director of tennis, Eric Meyer, have created a vibrant college pipeline that supports the growing and skilled varsity team.
“That’s why over the last four or five years we’ve had a ton of depth,” Hillary explained.
“So it’s not just about playing tennis in high school, it’s about how to facilitate the sport before they get there.”
“Kids give me energy — I love it,” said Steve, a former University of Colorado downhill ski racer. The longtime Vail resident and connoisseur of multi-sport training (he taught squash, basketball and baseball among other things) said he learned a little something about tennis while playing with his wife during of the last 27 years.
“He’s really good at taking the pressure off and making them smile and lash out,” Hillary said of her husband’s role as part of the team’s highly skilled coaching staff.
“It’s a good balance.
In a ski community blanketed in snow for most of the year, the group had to make lemons out of lemonade, practicing at 6 a.m. on the Valley’s only two indoor courts in Homestead. The ever-expanding team outgrew their limited space and time on the court, but out of pure love for introducing the sport to children, the coaches adapted.
“This year we had 25 girls,” Hillary explained, noting the usual cap of 19.
“We decided we didn’t want to turn anyone away and we wanted them to have the opportunity to learn the sport. Tennis is a lifelong sport. Usually we have a good number of athletes who have never hit a ball before.
When a snowstorm canceled last week’s final home meet, a JV round robin was scheduled to give the athletes a culminating event.
Junior varsity players not only provide the depth of the competition and the future of the program, but also much of the soul and energy of the team.
“We have a ton of depth with the JV girls,” Hillary said.
“It’s a real mix of all the schools and they have been very motivated and committed. They are so enthusiastic about the sport. They were disappointed in our last practice.
Seeing the annual transformation of girls from five different schools into close friends is a joy for the coaches.
“You can imagine how they act – they all stand in their own four corners at first,” Steve described of the dynamic.
“At the end of the season, they’re all best friends, they all have a blast together no matter where they’re from. At the end of the season, I couldn’t tell you which school they came from, because they all seem to come from the same class.
Led by captains Annika Iverson, Sofia Brunner and Gracie Allen, the mainstays of the support and camaraderie program filter through every practice and encounter.
“We really push that part,” Steve said of collectively building and supporting each other.
During matches, the team addresses specific process goals such as footwork, tactics and cross hitting in doubles matches. Doubles player No. 3 Jenna Elalayli currently has a deal with Steve tied to a goal.
“Every winner she hits on the line passes the net player, I’m buying her a dilly bar,” he laughed, a reminder to Elalayli’s consumption of treats ahead of the Steamboat Springs meet earlier this year. .
While improvement goals “take the focus away from just winning,” the ruthless competitive component is also an important part of the recipe.
“We want them to get the experience of working hard and watching what you’re doing when you’re doing that,” Steve said.
He’d be surprised if VMS didn’t qualify all three singles and four doubles positions for the state and say they were “most definitely” the best team in the program to date.
“It’s a really, really cool girl group,” he beamed. As he listed the players and their unique attributes, his infectious competitive spirit became evident.
“What a group,” he said, the volume of his voice rising.
“As we sit here talking about it, I get carried away.”
Meet the team
Number 1 Singles Catherine Dawsey has led VMS all year.
” She fights. She’s a really good player,” Hillary said of the four-year singles star. Dawsey will be heading to Loyola-Marymount, not to play tennis, though the McSpaddens wouldn’t be surprised if the lifelong player plays side games.
“She’s just a great leader. Super enthusiastic. She will definitely be missed because she brings everyone together,” the head coach said.
Undefeated junior captain Annika Iverson was a state semifinalist in the no. 3 singles last year and has lofty goals for this playoff at no. 2 spot.
“She wants to win states this year,” Hillary said of the homeschooler.
Rounding out the singles team, who came to VMS from 5A Arvada West this year, was Battle Mountain sophomore Summer Sveum.
“Summer came and every game was tough, but she stayed aggressive.” Although she doesn’t have a state tournament history, Hillary said the future looks bright for the sophomore.
“We can’t wait to see what she can do.”
When the McSpaddens approached Gracie Allen about playing doubles with her sister, Jesse, there was an aura of uncertainty from all parties.
“We said, ‘Do you listen do you think you can play with your sister?'” Hillary recalled.
“She said, ‘I think so’.”
When asked what would happen when she felt like yelling at her freshman sister in the middle of the game, the senior apparently looked at the coach and replied, “Well, I guess we’ll. discover.”
So far, so good.
“When we saw them play together at first, they were killing it.” Steve said, noting that Jesse is “the most coordinated kid I’ve ever seen in my life.” Volleyball duo Vail Christian have perhaps the most daunting regional tournament slate of them all. They lost a game to favorites Steamboat earlier this year.
“No. 1 double is going to be a battle,” Steve said.
Sofia Brunner brings state tournament experience to the no. 2 team, alongside partner Aria Webster.
“I just know when she steps on the court, she’s going to win,” she said of Brunner. Always high-five, the two coaches recognize an obvious chemistry.
“They work really well together,” Hillary said.
“They’ve been playing good tennis all season.”
Juliet Studness and Jenna Elalayli are the proverbial purveyors of positivity to no. 3 double slots.
“They smile and laugh every game they play,” Steve said. “Nothing is ever a drag with them. They’re a fun team to watch.
The coaches said the calm and collected Elalayli had ‘kicked the shit off the ball’ and had prepared Juliette well of late.
“A lot of doubles are about communicating and that’s something we teach. Positioning is complex,” Hillary said.
Despite everything, rookie Anna Baker quickly understood.
“Technically, she’s one of the best players on the team,” praised Steve.
“His footwork is phenomenal.”
Baker is paired with Battle Mountain junior Mitchell, who coaches say “played well with every person we put with her.” The team went 5-0 in none. 4 doubles matches this year.
Mindful of the immense sacrifices made by their athletes, the McSpaddens hope they will be rewarded with the state tournament births they believe their children deserve. Even if they don’t, however, equipping them for success in the rest of life outweighs any trophy.
“We try to prepare them to play their best, but it’s not just tennis. It’s life in general and everything they do,” Hillary said.
Last year, a relative of a rival approached Steve and complimented his athletes.
“I just want you to know one thing,” she said. “Your daughters are always good sportsmen, they’re always nice – they’re just great kids.”
“It’s more important than them to win, to be honest with you,” Steve said.
“We love the sport and we want to give back to it and it’s so amazing when we have stories like that,” added Heather.