A sizzling sun beat down on the Grain Valley tennis courts, located just east of the high school, but coach Randy Draper’s squad wasn’t the least bit hampered by the heat.
They were laughing and joking, and when it came time to get down to business, they were as serious as a law firm on judgment day.
“That’s what I love about this team – really, all my teams,” said Draper, who started the highly successful girls tennis program 14 years ago with a group of players he recruited from his Grain Valley Parks and Recreation program, “they know when to have fun, and they know when to get serious.”
They’ve been pretty serious the past five years, winning five consecutive Missouri River Valley Conference titles and the first district title in school history last season.
In 2008 and 2009, Katelyn Barr became the first player in Eagles history to make it to state in singles. And last season, her younger sister, Nathalia, teamed with Mariah Hernandez to become the first doubles team from Grain Valley to reach state.
“They like to keep it in the family,” quipped Draper, a coach who has developed such a student following that many fans will tailgate before home tennis matches. “We have a good team with a lot of talent this year. They’re excited – you have to be excited about tennis to have fun on a day like today – but we’re giving them plenty of water and time to get some air conditioning inside the school, and all they want to do is hit the little yellow ball around the court.”
When Draper started the program more than a decade ago, freshman No. 2 singles and No. 1 doubles (teaming with Barr) player Kayelee Smith wasn’t even born.
“Oh, come on now,” Draper said, cackling with laughter, “you’re making me feel old.”
Smith has been an Eagles fan for years, and would often come watch the varsity team play with dreams of one day joining them on the court.
“This year, Coach said, ‘Kayelee, you can finally come inside the fence,’” Smith said, with a touch of satisfaction in her voice. “I was so excited. I’ve dreamed about being on this team. I’ve played a long time, but really got serious after going to Coach’s classes at Parks and Recreation.”
That’s how Barr got her start, and she has developed into one of the premier singles and doubles players in the area.
“This is my fourth year on the team and my fourth doubles partner,” Barr said. “I had a senior when I was a freshman and sophomore and last year Mariah was a senior. I’m looking forward to playing with Kayelee. I think we complement each other real well and will become a pretty good team.”
Smith hopes to help Barr make a return trip to state.
“I know I need her and I hope she needs me – just a little bit,” Smith said. “I can’t wait for the season to start.”
Neither can Barr, who wants to help this team clinch conference title No. 6.
“No one wants to be on the team that ends the conference win streak,” Barr said. “We have a lot of talent this year – young girls, girls back from last year, girls who play a lot of tennis and girls who don’t. But when we’re part of this team, all we think about is tennis.”
Follow Bill Althaus on Twitter: @AlthausEJC