Team unity, more experience at core of Liberty Hill tennis team’s first district championship
By Keith Sparks
How did the Panther tennis team make such a big turnaround in one year?
From struggling to win a district match last season to dominating the district this season, the Panthers’ number one tennis player Henry Madison said it was a combination of gaining experience from top to bottom and getting a new head coach in Philip Dodd that allowed them to win their first tennis district championship at the 4A level.
“We had such a young team last year, losing only three seniors from the fall team, so just everyone playing a whole ‘nother year, gaining experience and getting a new coach,” Madison said.
One of the keys, Madison said, was getting the younger kids to buy in, and another was getting closer as a team.
“We’ve definitely grown as a team,” Madison said. “Last year, we weren’t as one, I guess you could say, but this year, we talk a lot. Mainly the freshmen and sophomores have stepped up, and we got a lot of new freshmen in that have helped the team out a lot, playing in the lower numbers and winning important matches.”
As a coach, how do you build team unity? The answer is simple, according to Dodd: play more tennis.
“Play, play, play, work, work, work, call ‘em out all the time,” Dodd said. “I say, ‘Look, this is what a team looks like.’ We’re going to see what a state championship looks like in the third round when we play Fredericksburg.”
After playing only a handful of matches in the fall of last year, Dodd ramped up their schedule in a big way this season. Although they still haven’t played as many matches as Dodd had hoped due to weather cancellations, they will have played nearly three times the number of matches they played in the fall of 2017.
Dodd said the talent has been there for the last four years, at least, but they simply needed better guidance. He’s confident that if he had been able to implement his strategies four years ago, there would be a few more district championship trophies at the high school.
“With this group, had I been here four years ago, this wouldn’t have been the first district championship,” Dodd said. “They’ve just been missing guidance and strategy in doubles play. They’ve had talented kids. When you’ve got kids that go to state… and it’s not only the top kids. We’ve got a good team.”
Although Kennedy Coleman and Gunnar Ortega made it to state in mixed doubles, the improvement of the Panthers’ doubles teams, as a whole, is where Dodd said he’s seen the most improvement, which he thinks had a lot to do with better unity.
“Doubles play is what has improved the most, and team unity is the biggest thing,” Dodd said. “We had a lot of individuals on the team. We still do, still breaking a few horses, but it’s a team sport and the kids didn’t realize that. When you’re building a successful program, it’s not all about you.”
In order to continue to improve, the culture of tennis in Liberty Hill needs to change, Dodd said. While other schools’ tennis teams are full of players that have been playing since they were toddlers, Liberty Hill doesn’t have very many of them.
“In our sport, there are kids that start at four years old, play in a private club, play USTA tennis, and Fredericksburg and Boerne have six or seven kids doing that on each team,” Dodd said. “We’ve got one or two right now.”
To change the culture, Dodd is focused on becoming more involved with the junior high students, who he hopes will have their own courts in the near future. Continuity from the junior high level to the high school is key for the other sports, and tennis should be no different.
“My middle school program, I’m working out once a week on Mondays, after playoffs I’ll go Monday and Wednesday, then hopefully by semester, maybe I can get a class period, and maybe we’ll get a court at the junior high if we want to be competitive,” Dodd said. “Basketball, football, soccer, volleyball all have programs at the lower levels.”
Although they’ve celebrated their district championship accordingly, Dodd said they’re simply living up to Liberty Hill’s expectations of winning championships in every sport at every level.
“It’s expected around here,” Dodd said. “I’ve known this area for a while, and I was like, ‘Dang, these kids are good.’ Football, basketball, everyone’s winning, and I’m like, ‘Why aren’t these kids winning?’ The standard is there, but we’ve got to bump it up a couple levels in a couple years real quick, because when we go 5A, it’s a different world.”
The Panthers’ first tennis district championship is only step one. After this weekend, it’s on to the playoffs.