VMS tennis heads to region tournament with program’s best team ever
Defending region champs are 11-0 as a team in 2022
When the win-loss record is 71-6 across individual matches and 11-0 as a team, is it really appropriate to question the method — even if consuming multiple Dairy Queen dilly bars is part of the equation?
Defending champion Vail Mountain School heads to Grand Junction for Thursday and Friday’s 3A Region 8 girls tennis tournament as the presumptive favorite, fielding a junior-laded squad that almost never loses and almost always has maximal fun. Their joyful pursuit of excellence goes hand-in-hand with learning life-long lessons, developing tightly-knit friendships, and yes — making ice cream-related bets between coaches and athletes (stay tuned).
“Our philosophy is not all about winning,” Hillary stated.
“It’s about the kids learning the sport, having fun and having good sportsmanship — win or lose.”
Of course, one consequence of superb instruction, a collective spirit and a healthy culture is, well, winning. Perennial region powers Aspen and Steamboat have taken notice, and its coaches, athletes and even parents are not always thrilled about having company at the top. In fact, when VMS won its first region title last year, finally taking the last step up from their usual third or fourth-place ledger, one coach asked for the scores to be recounted.
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“They beat you by 42 points — it wasn’t even close,” came the response from the official.
Thirteen years ago, former DI tennis player Hillary McSpadden took over the program, which pulls athletes from all four area high schools as well as VSSA. During that time, her and husband Steve, along with Homestead Director of Tennis Eric Meyer have chiseled out a vibrant middle school pipeline which supports the growing, skilled varsity team.
“That’s why in the last four or five years, we’ve had a ton of depth,” Hillary explained.
“So, it’s not just about playing high school tennis, it’s about how can you facilitate the sport before they get there.”
“The kids give me energy — I love it,” said Steve, a former Alpine ski racer for the University of Colorado. The longtime Vail resident and multi-sport coaching connoisseur (he’s taught squash, basketball and baseball among other things) said he’s learned a little something about tennis from playing with his wife for the last 27 years.
“He’s really good about eliminating the pressure, getting them to smile and getting after it,” Hillary said of her husband’s role on the team’s highly-qualified coaching staff.
“It’s a good balance.”
In a ski community blanketed with snow for most of the year, the group has had to make lemons out of lemonade, practicing at 6 a.m. on the only two indoor courts in the Valley at Homestead. The ever-expanding team has outgrown its limited court space and time, but out of a sheer love for introducing the sport to kids, the coaches have accommodated.
“This year, we had 25 girls,” Hillary explained, noting the usual 19-person cap.
“We decided we didn’t want to turn anybody away and we wanted them to have the opportunity to learn the sport. Tennis is a lifetime sport. Usually, we have a good chunk of athletes who have never hit a ball before.”
When a snowstorm canceled last week’s final home competition, a JV round-robin was planned to give athletes a culminating event.
The junior varsity players not only provide competitive depth and the future of the program, but also much of the team’s soul and energy.
“We have a ton of depth with the JV girls,” Hillary stated.
“It’s a real mix from all the schools and they’ve been very motivated and committed. They’re just so gong-ho about the sport. They were bummed when we had our last practice.”
Witnessing the annual transformation of girls from five different schools develop into close friends is a joy for the coaches to behold.
“You can imagine how they act — they’re all standing in their own four corners at the beginning,” Steve described of the dynamic.
“By the end of the season, they’re all best buds, whooping it up altogether, no matter where they’re from. By the end of the season, I couldn’t tell you what school they came from, because they all look like they come from the same class.”
Led by captains Annika Iverson, Sofia Brunner and Gracie Allen, the program’s pillars of support and camaraderie filter through each practice and meet.
“We really push that part,” Steve said of the collective building up and caring for one another.
At meets, the team addresses specific process goals like footwork, tactics and hitting cross-court in doubles matches. No. 3 doubles player Jenna Elalayli currently has a deal with Steve related to one focus.
“Every winner she hits down the line pass the net player, I’m buying her a dilly bar,” he laughed, a call back to Elalayli’s consumption of the treats before the Steamboat Springs meet earlier this year.
While the targets for improvement “take the attention away from just winning,” the cutthroat competitive component is a major part of the recipe, too.
“We want them to get the experience of working hard and watching what you get to do when you do that,” Steve said.
He would be surprised if VMS didn’t qualify all three singles and four doubles positions for state and said it is “most definitely” the program’s best team ever.
“They’re a really, really cool group of girls,” he beamed. As he listed off the players and their unique attributes, his contagious competitive spirit became evident.
“What a group,” he said, the volume of his voice rising.
“As we sit here talking about it, I’m getting fired up.”
Meet the team
No. 1 singles Catherine Dawsey has led VMS all year.
“She battles. She’s an extremely good player,” Hillary said of the four-year singles star. Dawsey will head to Loyola-Marymount, not to play tennis, though the McSpaddens wouldn’t be surprised if the lifetime player will contest some matches on the side.
“She’s just a great leader. Super enthusiastic. She’s going to be one that we’ll miss for sure because she kind of pulls everybody together,” the head coach said.
Undefeated junior captain Annika Iverson was a state semi-finalist in no. 3 singles last year and has ambitious goals for this postseason at the no. 2 spot.
“She wants to win states this year,” Hillary stated of the homeschooled student.
Rounding out the singles squad is Battle Mountain sophomore Summer Sveum, who came to VMS from 5A Arvada West this year.
“Summer has stepped in and every match has been a grind for sure, but she’s stayed aggressive.” Even though she has no state tournament history, Hillary said the future is bright for the sophomore.
“We’re looking forward to seeing what she can do.”
When the McSpaddens approached Gracie Allen about playing doubles with her sister, Jesse, there was an aura of uncertainty from all parties.
”We said, ‘listen do you think you can play with your sister?’” Hillary recalled.
“She said, ‘I think so.’”
When asked what would happen when she felt like screaming at her freshman sister in the middle of the match, the senior apparently looked at the coach and answered, “Well, I guess we’ll find out.”
So far, so good.
“When we saw them playing together at the beginning, they were killing it.” Steve said, noting that Jesse is “the most coordinated kid I’ve ever seen in my life.” The Vail Christian volleyball duo has perhaps the most daunting regional tournament slate of anyone. They dropped a match against the favorites from Steamboat earlier this year.
“No. 1 doubles is going to be a battle,” said Steve.
Sofia Brunner brings state tournament experience to the no. 2 team, alongside partner Aria Webster.
“I just know when she steps on the court, she’s going to win,” she stated of Brunner. Always high-fiving, both coaches recognize an obvious chemistry.
“They work really well together,” said Hillary.
“They’ve played great tennis all season.”
Juliet Studness and Jenna Elalayli are the proverbial purveyors of positivity at the no. 3 doubles slot.
“They are smiling and laughing every match they play,” said Steve. “Nothing is ever a drag with them. They’re a fun team to watch.”
The coaches said the calm and collected Elalayli has been “hitting the crap out of the ball,” and setting up Juliet well lately.
“A lot of doubles is about communicating and that’s something that we teach. The positioning is complex,” said Hillary.
Even so, rookie Anna Baker has caught on quickly.
“Technically, she’s one of the best players on the team,” lauded Steve.
“Her footwork is phenomenal.”
Baker is paired with the Battle Mountain junior, Mitchell, whom the coaches said “played well with every single person we put with her.” The team has gone 5-0 in no. 4 doubles matches this year.
Aware of the immense sacrifices made by their athletes, the McSpaddens are hopeful they will be rewarded with the state tournament births they feel their kids deserve. Even if they don’t, however, equipping them for success in the rest of life trumps any trophy.
“We’re trying to get them to be ready to play their best, but it’s not just tennis. It’s life in general and anything they do,” Hillary said.
Last year, a parent from a rival approached Steve and complimented his athletes.
“I just want you to know, one thing,” she said. “Your girls are always good sports, they’re always kind — they’re just great kids.”
“That’s more important than them winning, to be honest to you,” Steve stated.
“We love the sport and we want to give back to it and it’s so amazing when we have stories like that,” Heather added.