By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- It's a little piece of history for Randolph-Macon Academy's girls tennis team, a small accomplishment perhaps -- then again, it's taken almost three decades for the Yellow Jackets to gain a state ranking.
It finally happened this week, when R-MA checked in at No. 8 among the top eight in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division II state rankings. The top eight at the end of the season qualify for the state playoffs. That's still a long way off, true, but this is already as close as the Yellow Jackets have come to the state tournament.
"It's a real good accomplishment for our team, because we've been trying for many years -- this is my third year on the team -- and it's been really hard for us to get up there in the rankings," said Cozette Boakye, the team's No. 2 singles player and one of three seniors on the team.
Off to a 2-2 start, the Yellow Jackets are soon to be tested often. Their next three matches are all against teams currently higher in the VISAA state rankings. It starts with No. 2 Fredericksburg Academy today, then matches next week against Highland School and Wakefield School. All three, like, R-MA, are members of the Delaney Athletic Conference which means the Yellow Jackets will face each of them twice this season.
"It's nice to get that second chance at everybody," R-MA coach Eric Barr said. "We can hang with a lot of those teams, even that beat us. We just need to be a little more consistent. That's basically been the difference in our losses.
"We just need to be more consistent and patient, and aggressive when we need to be."
The Yellow Jackets' senior core of No. 1 Anastasia Voellm, Boakye and No. 3 Enyonam Odoom have taken on the challenge of leading an international roster that features three players from China.
"Our top three players are all seniors, and we've been playing together since our sophomore year," Voellm said. "So we've kind of been evolving together, learning together, and just getting better together all-around."
Voellm, a three-sport star at R-MA who hails from Alexandria, has been playing tennis for four years at the school. Surprisingly, she points to one of her more forgettable matches as a highlight for the Yellow Jackets this season. In R-MA's Sept. 11 match against Wakefield Country Day, Voellm lost her singles match and at No. 1 doubles with Boakye. But the team's No. 2 doubles duo of Odoom and Amelia Zipparo delivered a clinching 8-5 win to secure the 4-3 match victory.
"Even though Cozette and I didn't go out and perform as well as we could have, [Odoom and Zipparo] saved us," Voellm said. "And our No. 5 [Siqi Xie], too -- it was the first match that she'd ever played, and she won."
That the Yellow Jackets are close-knit is no surprise -- the team lives together on campus, along with assistant coach Jumanah Khader, a Cadet Life Supervisor who lives in the dormitory during the school year.
Khader, incidentally, is a former girls tennis standout at R-MA who Barr rates as the best he's ever coached at the school.
"It's invaluable because she's up there living with the girls," Barr said. "Each night she can get information to them, something as simple as cleaning uniforms or letting them know what time we're getting out the next day. Plus she's a mother, a confidant, a supervisor, so she gets to know them very well.
"So if you get her on the tennis court and she's giving you some advice, there's a trust factor. She knows what she's doing, plus she's got the tennis skills."
Barr, who has coached at R-MA for more than two decades, also has a strong connection with his squad.
"He knows tennis inside and out," Voellm said. "We connect with him. We make jokes -- he's really witty. It's not the typical coach-player relationship. It's a lot of fun."
As for the ranking, the Yellow Jackets hope to hold onto it the rest of the year.
"I wouldn't say we're better, skill-wise," Voellm said. "I think we've had a lucky draw, and also we've just been performing as well as we can. Everyone's trying their best."