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The first tennis match I covered for the Northern Virginia Daily was in 1995. I was much younger then, and as a part-timer, I probably hadn't written more than three or four articles for the Daily.
I was covering the Handley girls tennis team. The Judges were playing in the Region II semifinals and finals, which were held on the same day. They won both matches, over Culpeper and Fort Defiance, respectively. It was their first state berth in 10 years.
That day came back into my mind last Thursday, as I asked some of Handley's current players about the team clinching a regional berth for the 17th consecutive year. It's a mind-boggling accomplishment.
Most of Handley's current players weren't even born when the Judges started that incredible streak.
Handley's streak has to be one of the most impressive in the our area's high school sports history. The players constantly change, yet somehow the program keeps winning.
I have covered the program for the last 17 years, so I'm very aware of how strong it has been. However, sometimes it's easy to take it for granted and you can forget just how special the accomplishment is. I can't imagine a team in another sport -- like football, baseball or basketball -- being that successful every year for that long. The Judges' boys tennis team is just behind the girls, as they've reached regionals 14 straight years, and won four state titles. But with only 10 district titles in that span, their numbers are just a shade below the girls.
Some of the Handley girls' numbers are even more impressive than the 17 consecutive regional berths. The program has won five state titles and is 300-27 in the last 17 years. It has won the Northwestern District title 16 of the last 17 years. It has advanced to at least the Region II semifinals in 15 of the last 16 years. It has won 98 consecutive district matches.
Just thinking about all those numbers made me wonder: Why is Handley so good year in and year out?
"We've been fortunate to have a lot of good players," Handley coach Tommy Arthur said of the Judges' success. "We've been lucky that we have two good tennis clubs with good pros that have fed us nice players. We've just been lucky."
That's a long time to have a lot of luck. I'm sure luck has a little to do with it, but I think it's been more than just luck. There have certainly been a lot of great players and some good coaches, too.
In 1995, the Judges were led by a freshman named Steffany Slaughter, who is now an assistant coach for the Judges. It's funny how those things always seem to happen. In 1995, the Judges were coached by Chris Garber, who is now the athletic director at Millbrook.
The Judges beat Lakeland in 1995 for the program's first state title. The Judges won again in 1997, this time winning the state championship on their home courts. During those three years the team had some talented players, but the nucleus of the team graduated in 1998.
When most programs lose talent, they begin to slide. Not with Handley's girls tennis teams.
In 1999, the Judges benefited from a little luck as Anne Stephenson transferred to Handley and took over where Slaughter left off. The team went to the state final but lost to Graham. The next year, with the combination of Stephenson and freshman Ashley Tucker, along with new coach Terry Ewell, the team again advanced to the state final. This time Handley lost to what has become one of its main rivals: Jamestown. The Eagles are the only program with more state titles in the last 17 years: Six.
Handley lost in the state final for a third straight year in 2001, and the second year in a row to Jamestown. Handley lost in the regional final to Loudoun County the next two years.
In 2003, the Judges had a number of seniors who were pivotal to their success. I can still remember some of them talking about the tradition of the program, and how important it was that they had continued that tradition.
The following year Kristin Gordon, as a freshman, took the mantle as Handley's top player. The team as a whole struggled just a little, which was to be expected considering the Judges had lost a huge nucleus of experienced players the year before. Handley finished second in the district to Liberty, still advanced to regionals, but fell in the quarterfinals to Loudoun Valley.
At that point I thought the Judges were going to suffer through a few tough seasons, but instead the best was yet to come.
After falling in the Region II semis in 2005, the program was rejuvenated with possibly the best back-to-back classes of the last 17 years. In 2006, with the addition of freshmen Elizabeth Gardiner, Mykenzie Garrett and Lane Stickley, the Judges advanced to the state final where they lost to -- who else -- Jamestown.
The following year another strong class led by Sarah Moomau and Katie Gordon came to Handley. The Judges didn't lose a match for the next three seasons.
They won three state titles and 75 consecutive matches. Last year the Judges had another great season, but were defeated by Hidden Valley in the state semifinals. However, five of the Judges' top six were seniors.
So, it was only logical to think this would be another down year for Handley, maybe even a little like 2005, when the Judges didn't win the district. They are led by sophomore Jessie Nolan and freshman Kathryn Bock. There are times when they've had three freshmen in the top six. Without a lot of experience they've found ways to win, and are 12-2 on the season.
With such little experience, it's hard to expect this year's team to make it back to states. However, the team is young and the future still looks bright for the program.
It's hard to say how long the streak will continue. No matter what happens the rest of the season, the Judges have already extended the regional streak, and have added another district title to the trophy case. They've once again held up the program's tradition. And with such a young team, that's something to be proud of.
The program continues to do something special, and it will probably be a long time before we see another program in our area achieve what it has.