PEORIA — Richwoods choir director Terry Cole appears to have the girls on the school’s tennis team playing more in harmony this season in his third year as their coach.
The Knights struggled during his first two years after Cole took over the team before the 2018-19 season.
Now, the possibility of a winning a few matches this year comes just a couple of years after many of the Knights players didn’t even know how to play.
Richwoods is off to a 4-2 start in dual matches, which is a far cry from when Cole first became their head coach.
"Three years ago, we had nine girls starting the season — and only three of them knew how to keep score," he said. "We had 20-something kids in Year 2, and now we are at about 30.
"There are some kids who came out just because I was their primary school teacher. For a long time, kids played for three years and quit. And there aren’t these great feeder programs."
Cole made it clear to his players’ parents very early on that expectations would not be great at the start.
"In the first year in the parent meeting, I told everybody that we were going to lose every match, and that it was going to be a slaughter," he said. "But that we would try to have fun.
"I made it very clear that good players were made over the summer, not during the tennis season. We did win one match the first year, and we got ice cream."
When Cole saw the players he had to work with in his first year, he went straight to former Richwoods principal Brett Elliott and athletic director Ron Dwyer.
"My first week, I went to them and said we were going to lose, and that I didn’t have a team," Cole said. "The girls didn’t know how to play, and literally didn’t know if lines were in or out.
"Brett told me that he didn’t realize that I needed everything gifted to me, that I didn’t know how to teach. And he was right. This isn’t about winning. It’s about kids having a place to be, having a sense of community and working together."
Cole did play high school tennis, but his main job at Richwoods is as the school’s choir director.
"I never claimed to have all the answers for them," he said. "But I did get some good advice from my doubles partner, Matt Rineberg (the 2003 Journal Star Boys Tennis Player of the Year from Pekin).
"He told me to just let them play – a lot – and don’t drill them that much. So, while the girls might not outhit somebody, all of them will outwork and outplay them."
Richwoods senior Miranda Popp has been through the team’s transformation.
"This year I think we’re growing up," she said. "A bunch of freshmen came in my sophomore year, and they have just been getting more experience because they stayed."
Junior Sophia Suarez has been a part of the growing process for the Knights.
"Our freshman year, we were just trying to focus on getting the score cards right," she said. "When I came in, I didn’t know how to play at all, and neither did my doubles partner (Destiny Rush). Mr. Cole taught us how to play.
"Now, we know all the rules, and we can just apply everything we’ve learned."
One of the big additions this year has been freshman Julia Wojtowicz, a transfer student from the Bronx, N.Y. She joined the team last month and was ranked No. 29 in New York before she transferred.
She has a UTR (universal tennis ranking) of 5, which is the same as two-time Journal Star Girls Tennis Player of the Year Taylor Disharoon of Dunlap.
That showed when Wojtowicz took an early lead against Disharoon in their first meeting, before dropping a 6-4, 6-2 decision.
"They told me she came in," Cole said. "When I was going to hit with her, she said she hadn’t played in forever. She took about six months off because of COVID, so she had some rust.
"So when I served, I walloped a couple of balls at her – and hit them real hard! And they came right back. So I said, cool. We’ll see you tomorrow at 2:45 for varsity practice."
Wojtowicz plays No. 1 singles for the Knights, but said she had no expectations when she moved to Peoria.
"My dad works for OSF as a life flight pilot, and my mom lives in New York," she said. "So, I moved here to live with my dad for a couple of years. So I might not be here for my whole high school career."
Her last tournament in New York was in March, and then the rest of the events were canceled because of COVID.
"After that, I haven’t played any tournaments," Wojtowicz said. "I’ve just been hitting with my dad here on the Richwoods courts after I got here. But I just came here for school, not really for tennis."
She has been playing No. 1 doubles with Rachel Zevnik, who is just a sophomore.
"Rachel is also good at the net, and I’m better at the baseline," Wojtowicz said. "So (Cole) thought we would be a good team together."
Zevnik also had the competitive spirit that Cole wanted on the court.
"Mr. Cole said I’m nice, but he thought we would work well together because I’m real competitive," she said. "I don’t like to lose."
Cole said he is very proud of how his team has grown over the past three seasons, and has hopes that the Knights could regain some of their past glory.
Richwoods has won 18 girls tennis sectional titles, but none since 2012. The school also has not had a state qualifier since 2015.
"We are working to build Richwoods tennis back up," he said. "But I don’t care if they win or lose. I care that they feel good about what they’re doing."
Discussing his team’s early season success, however, must be like music to the choir director’s ears.
Johnny Campos can be reached at 686-3214 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnnyCampos59.