Dutch Fork girls tennis coach Gina Hilts hopes experience plays a big factor when the Silver Foxes face Wando in the Class 4A state championship match Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Cayce Tennis and Fitness Center.
This is the third consecutive trip to the finals for a Dutch Fork team dominated by players who have been here each of the past two seasons. Wando ended a stretch of eight consecutive trips to the finals in 2011 – they won six in a row from 2004-2009 before finishing as runner-up in 2010 and 2011 – but will have a lineup featuring mostly freshmen and eighth-graders this go round.
“I'm hoping experience is going to play a big factor,” Hilts said. “When you get there, the nerves are there. So, hopefully, with us being there before, it will play to our advantage. The four seniors want it bad. They know this is it. Walking away the last two years as just being a finalist is not the same as walking away as a state champion.”
The Silver Foxes are 26-1 and have a long list of accolades. They finished runner-up in the Florence preseason tournament before winning the Bishop England tournament. Both of those fields featured the top programs from across South Carolina. Wando (18-1) also participated in those tournaments but the teams didn’t compete against each other.
“Our region is, maybe, not as strong, so it was good for us to see the higher competition teams that we would see in the playoffs,” Hilts said.
The top of the Silver Foxes’ lineup features three sophomores – Lauren Joch, Sam Calais and Alison Walsh. Joch and Calais each lost one match this season and are ranked in the top 10 in the South Carolina USTA rankings.
Seniors Caroline Sloop, Hayley Owens and the doubles team of Anna Maria Gardiner and Caroline Sinegar round out the starting lineup.
They also hope experience plays a role.
“The experience of the last two years has helped us grow and mature more,” Joch said. “We feel like it’s our time.”
Gardiner agrees that Dutch Fork hasn’t shied away from lofty expectations.
“At practice a few times, we've actually sat down and talked about what we learned from being at state twice already,” Gardiner said. “A few things we talked about were taking our time and not rushing through it. We feel like a few courts did that last year. The other thing is not to play defensively. We need to play like we're the team to beat since we have that experience.”
The only difference so far from this trip to the finals compared with the past two seasons is Dutch Fork took a different path. When the South Carolina High School League set the realignment for the 2014-2016 school years, the Silver Foxes moved from the Lower State to the Upper State.
Dutch Fork dropped two individual matches in defeating Laurens, Boiling Springs, Riverside and Spartanburg to advance to the finals.
Joch felt the challenge was more difficult in reaching the finals the past two years.
“Coming through Lower State last year was more of a challenge,” she said. “We had to face Lexington and Wando in the Lower State. The Upper State had some good teams, but we felt like this is where we would be when the season began. It's a blessing to be back here.”
All that remains is to reverse the disappointment of the past two years.
“Two years ago, our goal was to just get there,” Hilts said. “I knew it would be difficult to win. We knew it would be tough last year. This year, I feel like we have a better chance just because of the experience and maturity of our players. It should be an exciting match between two good programs.”