In a year with many new tennis players on the court, the Waverly Lady Tigers finished a successful season by wrapping up with an overall 8-7 record.

The highlight of post-season play for Waverly coach Matt Morrison was having junior Kayla Barker and sophomore Kaelyn Linn qualify for district competition as a doubles duo.

The two players teamed up to play doubles in the Southern Ohio Conference tournament in late September. That experience and chemistry allowed them to continue playing together in the sectional and district tournament.

In the quarterfinal round of the Southern Ohio Conference tournament, Barker and Linn defeated Minford’s Brooklyn Jarrell and Isabella Fitch 6-1, 6-1.

Then Linn and Barker faced a battle in the semifinal round. Ultimately, Isabel Cassidy and Ashley Holtgrewe of Notre Dame defeated Barker and Linn 6-7 (7), 6-2, 6-1.

Waverly’s other doubles duo for the SOC tournament, Madison Davis and Sophie Thomas, suffered a defeat in the quarterfinals, losing to Payton Walker and Isabella Hamilton of Wheelersburg.

In SOC singles tournament action, the first round saw Waverly’s Greenlee Thacker defeat Notre Dame’s Charlee Lansing 7-5, 5-7, (10-8). In another battle, Minford’s Miranda Johnson defeated Waverly senior Marli Holderness 6-4, 3-6, (10-5). Wheelersburg’s Maria Nolan also defeated Waverly senior Emma Bellaw 6-0, 6-0.

In the singles quarterfinal round, Thacker ran into eventual SOC singles champion, Maddie Gill, of Wheelersburg, falling 0-6, 0-6. That ended SOC tournament play for Waverly.

Once post-season play began, Barker and Linn worked to make sure their run didn’t end in the sectional round. Their SOC experience of playing together paid dividends, as they battled their way into district competition as the top-seeded duo.

Receiving the top seed meant that they had a bye in the opening round. Once they took the court for their match, they started in the second round and beat a team from Logan Elm 6-0, 6-4.

Up next was a challenging match with Vinton County. However, the Waverly duo prevailed, winning 6-4, 6-4, to qualify for the district tournament.

“Vinton County is scrappy team that hustles and makes you play a lot of shots,” said Morrison. “This was a rematch from regular season that we also won by nearly the same score.”

Up next was the semifinal round and a battle with a duo from Wheelersburg.

“They had been on a roll lately, beating a lot of teams. They had knocked off the No. 4 seed from Jackson in the previous round,” said Morrison. “We lost the first set 3-6 and really looked out of it. Then we began to get active feet and started jumping around up at the net and making shots. Our net play turned the match around. We won 6-3, 6-0 after that.”

That win sent Linn and Barker to the sectional championship where they squared off with another team from Logan Elm.

“We had our moments in the first set, tied at 3-3 and were leading 40-15 (in the seventh game). But we ended up dropping that game and then went on to lose 3-6, 1-6. The second set got a little ugly, but it was a great tourney for us,” said Morrison. “I’m happy for Kayla, a junior who was so close to districts last year but lost in the round to qualify; and it was great for Kaelyn to get this experience as a sophomore to build on for the future!”

The district tournament meant a return to Portsmouth on Wednesday, Oct. 14 at 10 a.m. In a Friday evening practice session on Friday, Oct. 9, the two Lady Tigers talked about their season.

Linn had never played tennis before starting in June.

“Track season was canceled in the spring because of the coronavirus. So I was like, ‘Well, I need something to do.’ I didn’t want to play volleyball, because I played badly in seventh and eighth grade, and I didn’t really like it,” explained Linn.

“I had a few friends who played tennis. Madison (Davis) asked me to play tennis with the team. Coach Morrison talked to me in May and said he heard that I was interested in coming. He asked if I was interested enough to come to the next week, and I said yes. It just started from there. At first, I didn’t really like tennis, but then I got more motivated to do it. It occupied my time, and I like tennis a lot now.”

Her doubles partner is the most seasoned player on the Waverly roster. Barker had been playing tennis for six years, coming to summer workouts starting in fifth grade and continuing each year.

“My cousins played tennis, so I decided I wanted to try playing tennis,” said Barker of her decision to pick up a racquet. “I’ve been playing ever since.”

Both Linn and Barker have played singles and doubles throughout the season. However, Morrison said the team knew that Kayla’s best chance of advancing to district would be by playing doubles.

“We found that what Kayla and Kaelyn both do on the court helps them complement each other,” said Morrison. “Kayla is the big hitter, while Kaelyn is a lobber and quick. Kayla was close to making the district tournament last year. I wanted to do something that gave her the best chance to qualify.”

The two players ended up being the top seeded doubles team in the sectional.

“I will be honest. I didn’t know how far we would make it. I knew we would go to sectionals. I thought we could possibly win,” said Linn. “Then we won and I was really impressed. All we have to do at districts is win two matches to qualify for state. I just think how amazing it would be for Kayla as a junior to qualify for state, and me qualifying after just starting in June.”

Linn appreciates the support that Barker provides in practice and matches.

“If I’m doing bad at practice and I’m upset, Kayla always makes me feel better about it and picks me up. We pick each other up,” said Linn. “In the sectionals when we were playing Wheelersburg in the third round and we had lost our first set, I told Kayla to imagine we were playing at state and $10,000 was on the line.”

That was the inspiration they needed.

“We were like, ‘We have to win this.’ We took that mindset. It really helped us,” said Barker in the interview prior to the Oct. 14 tourney. “Going into the district, we are going to play our hardest and try for state. We have nothing to lose now. We might as well play our hardest, play our hearts out, and have fun.”

Linn added, “In the event that we lose, it is great to say that we made it that far.”

Their coach believed that they still hadn’t been in a match where they were both playing well at the same time. If that match happened in the district round, he felt good about their chances going to state.

With their efforts in sectional competition, Barker and Linn headed to the district tournament as the No. 2 seed. In order to advance to state, they needed to play Wheelersburg’s No. 2 doubles team in sectional action and beat them. Then they would need to defeat another team.

Ultimately, the two Lady Tigers battled through three sets in the quarterfinal round of district play to fall to the Lady Pirates. Officially, Wheelersburg’s Maegan Jolly and Emily Janney defeated Waverly’s Kayla Barker and Kaelyn Linn 6-2, 4-6, 6-4. The Wheelersburg duo then lost in the second round to a team from East Liverpool.

The good news for the Lady Tigers is that most of the roster, including Barker and Linn, will return next season. Losses to graduation include Marli Holderness, Desi Swepston and Emma Bellaw.

Email at jbillings@newswatchman.com; follow on Twitter @ Julie_Billings

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