For the Fort Mill High girls’ tennis team, the 2014 season will be one to remember.
There aren’t many teams in the history of Fort Mill High that can say they have had an undefeated regular season, but that is what this year’s Lady Jackets have done, going 18-0 and winning the Region III title for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Head coach Angela Niccum, whose mother once coached the team, is in her seventh year at the helm and has been affiliated with the program in one way or another since 1996.
She said this year’s group of girls really makes the difference. “For them, it’s a team effort,” she said.
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“You see it like you would a volleyball team or a basketball team,” Niccum said. “They do it for each other, and it’s really cool to see that in an individual sport, and I don’t think I have ever seen that before in an individual sport.”
That the team is mostly underclassmen might also have helped their drive this season, Niccum said.
“We have one senior,” she said. “We have a lot of young talent. Even our JV team is undefeated. We are pretty solid, one though 15, and it’s in the mentality of all of them, and it drives them.”
Fort Mill had only five players return from last year’s team, and Niccum said she is surprised at this year’s success because she figured this would be a rebuilding year.
“The 10 (new players) that came, I don’t know if their passion for tennis helped to drive the five,” Niccum said.
Junior No. 3 singles player Reagan Paff said a lot of the success this year has to do with No. 1 singles player and home-schooled seventh-grader Suzette Smit.
“We have a new No. 1 player who has been playing a long time,” Paff said. “She practices like four hours a day and then comes to practice out here and is already sweating, and we are like, ‘Yeah, we’ve been in class all day.’ ”
The lone senior, Preya Desai, plays No. 2 doubles and has bounced around the lineup for Fort Mill. She has seen seasons when the team has struggled just to make it to the playoffs and said this team year’s has more to offer.
“To be undefeated is something,” Desai said. “I would have thought we would have lost a match or two. We hadn’t beaten Clover for nearly 18 years before this year and had only beaten Nation Ford just once before.”
Desai said it helps with the lineup being solid throughout. “The way the lineup goes, the spots we are in, we excel at,” she said.
Desai said that even the small things like “The Buzz” has been a confidence-booster for Fort Mill. The Buzz is the nickname the players have given to Niccum’s in-match pep talks: Any time a player has a conference with Niccum during the match, the player and Niccum will touch index fingers and buzz like a yellow jacket before returning to the match.
Silly, maybe – but the players don’t discount its effects. “It’s a huge confidence booster,” Desai said.
The goal at the beginning of the year was simple: just make the playoffs and compete for a region title.
Now, with both goals firmly in hand, Fort Mill is setting its sights further than any other Lady Jackets tennis team has gone in the playoffs, by trying to make it to the third round. The furthest the team has advanced was in 2010, when Fort Mill lost in the second round.
“I would love to see them go to the third round,” Niccum said. “I would love to see how we align with everyone else. The first round we should be fine, but the second round is where the true colors come out.”
No matter how far the Lady Jackets advance, Niccum said, she is proud of this season and what the team has accomplished.
“I am a super competitive person, and I want them to love what they do,” she said. “At the same time, they are student athletes. It’s something they have a passion for, but it’s not what their life is driven by.”
The Lady Jackets will open the playoffs at home Oct. 22.