SHILOH — After years of resting in underdog infamy, the North Dorchester High School tennis program finally started to make waves during its 2019 season, with two of its doubles teams advancing to the state championship tournament.
Emily Marshall and Seth Talley earned a mixed doubles berth in the state tournament by winning two matches and reaching the 1A Regional final Saturday, May 18.
Girls doubles team Kristen Blades and Jenna Usilton also reached the 1A finals to earn a state tournament berth.
Head coach Jerrad Thomas, who has been coaching tennis at the school since last year, said he attributes the team’s success this year to a newfound confidence among the players.
“I just had to instill faith in them so we could have that winning mentality and people would finally give us some respect,” Thomas said.
Thomas, who played tennis for North Dorchester during his four years attending high school there, said it was important for him to come back and change everyone’s perception of the tennis program.
“Even before when I was in school, we never had any success,” Thomas said. “So I just thought I’d come back to try to give us a name.”
The team’s record last year was 2-14, but this year during the regular season the team went 8-8, making it the “best season in school history,” according to Thomas.
The players on the two doubles teams that made it to the championship tournament said they couldn’t have accomplished it without their coach.
“[Coach Thomas] is my favorite part of the team,” Talley said. “He pushed me to the max, he never talked down about me and he always had confidence in me.”
Talley, who was formerly on the school’s track team, admitted he had never picked up a tennis racket competitively before switching sports this season.
But after Thomas convinced him to join the team for practice one day, Talley said he never looked back.
“I’m someone who likes to do everything,” he said. “So I was like, you know what, it’s my senior year. Let me try to make it to states for tennis.”
Marshall said she and Talley have an undeniable connection on the court. Though, she admitted it wasn’t always that way.
Because, over the past four years, the two, along with Usilton, a member of the team’s girls doubles pair, have been in competition with one another for a different title: valedictorian.
The teammates’ unique fluctuating dynamic of strong alliances on the court and fierce academic competition in the classroom is part of what pushes them to win together, they said.
“We’ve always been competing for number one,” Marshall said. “But we had to put that behind us and actually work as a team.”
When they were able to do that, Marshall said, they “made something great.”
While Usilton and her doubles partner, Blades, aren’t in a long-lasting competition for academic notoriety, they do have a history of life-long friendship, which, they say, has contributed to their success.
“We’ve been friends since birth, so we have a really good connection,” Blades said. “Our chemistry is so amazing. We can like read each other’s minds.”
Blades said their “main thing is being positive,” which they’ve been told throws off their opponents during matches.
“Even when we lose we’re laughing and cheering each other on, so it’s a lot of fun playing together,” she said.
All four of the teammates said they plan to play tennis after they graduate — whether it’s on a school team, a club team or just for fun.
And they’ll definitely return to North Dorchester to see how the tennis program is doing and check in on their coach, who said he’s “not going anywhere anytime soon.”