By Tommy Keeler Jr.
FRONT ROYAL -- Skyline coach John Natalie knew going into the season it could be a special one. The Hawks returned their top seven -- all of whom were seniors.
Skyline did as well as Natalie could have imagined, as they were Northwestern District runners-up. They lost in the Region II quarterfinals to eventual Group AA state runner-up Western Albemarle and finished with an 11-7 record.
Natalie, the Northern Virginia Daily's 2013 Girls Tennis Coach of the Year, said he was able to play 16 players in team matches this season.
"I've never been able to work so many players in," Natalie said. "Whenever we win in singles, I try to get as many people involved in doubles as possible. To get 16 players into a competitive match this year, I consider that a sign of success because most of the time it was because we had won it, not because we had lost it."
Natalie said he began playing tennis in high school, but only played recreationally. He has continued to play ever since.
"It's just fun," Natalie said. "It's sort of like baseball in that there's no clock on it. So you're in it at any time. I've had matches with family and friends where they get the lead on me, but there's something in my head where I don't give up."
Natalie started coaching at Warren County, coaching the boys team, the year before the school split with Skyline. He then coached the boys team for a year before moving over to coach the girls squad.
The Hawks have had plenty of success while he's been coaching, but for Natalie it's not just about the wins and losses.
Natalie said he's very proud of the academic accomplishments of his team.
"Almost every year the girls in my tennis program are the highest percentage of all-academics of any of the sports," Natalie said. "I have stricter standards than the VHSL. If I think a girl's not doing well in classes, I'll ask for her stuff back and say you need to concentrate on your school work first. Even when I was coaching boys, I had that policy. It should be a student first and an athlete second."
Natalie said that he tries to get his players to understand what to look for on the court, and he felt like this year that really paid off.
"Most of the time when you're losing to Handley or other teams, it's because they can see you. They've adjusted to you before you've adjusted to them," Natalie said. "I try to get them to the point where they see it, they see it in warm-ups. As soon as the other person gets off the bus they should be figuring out everything they need to know about who their opponent might possibly be. And then just get that jump. This year they were getting that jump on people and the other teams didn't know what hit them in some of the matches."
Natalie said he knows next year will be a little bit of a rebuilding year, but he's still excited for the future of the program.
As for the seven seniors, Natalie said he couldn't ask for a better group to coach.
"I have seen them grow academically," Natalie said. "I have seen them grow as tennis players. And I'm so proud of each and every one of them. There's not one of them that I would ever be embarrassed about.
"Without any exception, they're all just incredibly nice young ladies."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org