May 18, 2009

Walton (Ga.) runs winning streak to 116

MORE: Sisters win boys tennis title | Thompson Valley (Co.) sets state record in track

ATLANTA Sometimes winning streaks can be scary. Who is going to be the one to slip on the banana peel and ruin it?

The players on the Walton (Ga.) High School girls' tennis team do not have to sweat that load for another year and, even if they did lose a match, the bond that ties them together wouldn't allow a failing teammate to be rebuked.

Along with talent, teamwork is why they win as much as they do. Their winning streak is at 116.

"There was a pretty big national tournament for juniors in California this season, and it's important because colleges use it for recruiting and to look at players from all over the country," Walton senior Elizabeth Kilborn said. "It was the same time as the regionals here and some high schools around us did not have their best lineups in the regionals because their girls were going to California instead.

"We had all of our players. Nobody went out there. When you are on the Walton tennis team, you have to put it as your priority. You have to learn to be a good teammate. It's what makes us a good program."

How good? The Lady Raiders went 17-0 this season losing just one singles match all season and captured their sixth consecutive 5-A state championship. They haven't lost a team match since 2004.

Along the way, the girls have knocked down the stereotype about juniors' tennis players being 24-hour selfish. They are on the team's timetable, not their own.

Roberta Mannheim, the coach since 2004, said several of her players had a tournament in Mobile, Ala., that coincided with the state tournament. Mannheim never thought twice about her girls being around for the high school event.

"If the Mobile tournament had conflicted because of rain or something like that, they would have dropped out," Mannheim said.

Mannheim was a self-described "tennis mom" for 30 years, an above-average player on a local circuit. Her children graduated from Walton (1996, 2000) and she teaches English at the school.

When the previous girls' coach decided not to coach in 2004, Mannheim was asked to take over. Her teams have not lost a match.

"I inherited some very, very good players," Mannheim said.

Three players off her first team played Division I tennis. Two players off this year's team are going D-I: Kilborn (Georgia Tech) and Emily Lauten (Virginia Tech).

Mannheim has a humble perspective of the streak and why it has gone on so long.

For one thing, she insists that the best instruction the girls get is with the tennis professionals that work with them at local academies, even though Mannheim was an accomplished player herself. There are two prominent tennis academies in north Atlanta.

In addition, she does not let her team swagger. When an opposing coach told her the Walton girls were good players "and nice" it delighted Mannheim.

Extending the winning streak would be nice, but the team loses four starters so the streak might end in 2010 or maybe not.

The program has 10 sophomores coming up who are motivated to keep the streak intact. It's a pride thing, which means opponents have to deal with talent and determination.

"When they lose a match, they don't just say, 'OK, I lost a match,' " Mannheim said. "They have a sense of not wanting to let their teammates down."

As impressive as the streak is it is still not in the same neighborhood as other girls' tennis streaks, according to the National High School Federation record book. Tucson, Ariz., has the record for consecutive wins at 218 from 1959-1973. Punahou, of Honolulu, has the most state titles (34), and Edina, Minn., won 15 consecutive titles from 1979-1992.

The only thing that could bother the Walton girls now is boredom or maybe not.

"Our success keeps the boredom away," Mannheim said. "Everybody wants to be part of a successful program."

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