Girls tennis in Lincoln is as strong as it’s ever been. So what has the Capital City thriving in the sport? | High School Tennis6 min read
Welcome to Episode 30 of the Prep Extra Podcast presented by The Lincoln Journal Star.
Lincoln Southeast girls tennis coach Chris Salem calls it a “victorious cycle.”
The tennis competition in the Capital City and in the conference is so good that just about every competition — dual or a multiteam meet — requires maximum effort and determination to win.
“You can’t have a wasted practice or you’re going to get knocked off the court the next time out,” Salem said. “It makes it fun because you don’t have a lot of walkovers, even in our dual schedule, anymore.”
High-level competition is one of many reasons why Lincoln has become a prep tennis hub in Nebraska.
When Lincoln Southeast won the Class A girls state tennis championship in 2016, it ended a 16-year title drought for the Capital City. Before the Knights’ breakthrough in ’16, girls tennis belonged to the Metro Conference, including a 12-year stretch when Omaha Marian or Omaha Westside won it all.
Since then, Lincoln has claimed four of the past five Class A state championships, and there’s a good chance it will be five in six years when the state tournament wraps up Friday at Koch Family Tennis Center in Omaha.
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Lincoln East won in 2018, Southeast won again in 2019 — and was the favorite to win in 2020 before COVID-19 hit — and Lincoln Pius X won last year.
Southeast, East and Lincoln Southwest are among the favorites this year. Omaha Marian should be in the mix, too.
So what’s leading to the Capital City’s excellence in the sport?
Coaches point to strong summer programs, strong year-round coaches and strong high school coaches.
“Lincoln is doing a really good job of getting kids into our sport,” Salem said. “You’ve got places like Woods and Genesis that do a really good job (and have) really good instruction. Another part of it is you’ve got some really knowledgeable, approachable coaches in the high schools.”
Lincoln Southwest coach Dennis Hershberger had a similar response. He’s been coaching in Lincoln for nearly 30 years, including 20 at Southwest, and the current wave in town is as strong as it’s been, he said.
“I really think it comes down to a lot of Lincoln is very well organized in tennis,” Hershberger said. “Not only are the clubs in Lincoln that are teaching tennis year-round doing a great job, there’s very good instruction at the club level, at the county club level.
“The other piece is they are well coached kids who understand the game and are playing the game the right way.”
In addition to coaching the girls and boys teams, multiple Lincoln high schools coach in the offseason, too. Hershberger and Salem coach at Country Club of Lincoln, East’s Chris Stock teaches players at Genesis and Hillcrest, and North Star’s Matt Lickliter has his own program at Firethorn.
Add the out-of-high school instruction of Kevin Heim (Woods), Talor Wain (Woods), Rick Stempson (Country Club of Lincoln), Fungai Tongoona (Genesis) and Kerry McDermott (Genesis), and players of all ages have several options.
Between a deep crop of instructors and tennis’ growth as a sport across the country, teams across town are seeing bigger numbers. Salem said he had about 40 girls out this year, and Southwest is in that range, too.
Lincoln will again have a strong presence at this week’s state tournament, which begins Thursday morning.
The top two seeds at No. 1 singles — Southeast senior Camilla Ibrahimova and East’s Belinda Rademacher — are from Lincoln. Three of the top five No. 1 doubles teams, including top-seeded Grace Bartolome and Ella Dean of Southwest, are from Lincoln.
The top No. 2 singles player, Southeast’s Corinne Barber, is a freshman from Lincoln. And the Nos. 2- and 3-seeded teams at No. 2 doubles hail from Lincoln.
The coaches take a lot of pride in Lincoln’s robust tennis reputation, Salem notes, and they love to help coach other’s players in the offseason. But at the end of the day, it comes back to the players.
“There’s no magic bullet,” Salem said. “The recipe seems to be, are you willing to put the time in? And we talk about it with our kids all the time.
“As coaches when we think about Lincoln tennis as a whole, we’re all kind of coaching each other’s kiddos. I think that we’re proud of us seeing Lincoln do so well because we’re all out there on the court for hours and hours in the summer and in the offseason working with our kids.”
Reach Clark Grell at 402-473-2639 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter at @LJSSportsGrell.