There’s a dynasty being built at Forest Lake Christian, one that has been more than a half decade in the making and has no intentions of relinquishing its reign.
The Falcons won their sixth straight Sierra Delta League tennis championship this week, completing an unlikely perfect 8-0 league season.
“My expectations for this season have already been blown out of the water,” second-year head coach Ralph Burnett said. “I was thinking it wouldn’t be great. We lost 11 seniors, we had a big target on our back, but these guys have really picked it up.”
Burnett, who took over for Steve Robinson, was an assistant with FLC for four years before taking the reigns two seasons ago.
With a lack of seasoned tennis players, Burnett said he entered the season with the feeling this would be a re-building year, but after a lot of hard work and perseverance by the team’s younger players, the squad sits atop the SDL once again as it prepares for the league playoffs Monday.
“We all knew this year was going to be a building year,” No. 1 girls singles player Jessica Burnett said. “A lot of our players had never played tennis before so we addressed that up front. They learned the game together and that has created a strong bond. They are really competitive, they work really hard and god blessed us with an amazing season.”
Jessica Burnett is one of a handful of players with a background in tennis and has helped younger players come along. She also has made the switch to singles this season after her and Sydney Foliente played doubles last season.
“She has become way more consistent when it comes to her game,” Ralph Burnett said of his daughter Jessica, the third Burnett child to come through the FLC system. “She definitely has that competitiveness, and this year she is showing great consistency and good endurance.”
Part of the reason the team has been successful this season, despite a lack of experience, has been the team’s drive to compete, said Ralph Burnett, who himself played prep tennis for FLC in the 80s.
“One of the major reasons we succeeded this year is a lot of the players play other sports and they are definitely competitive athletes,” Ralph Burnett said. “Tennis in my opinion is half muscle memory and half willingness to win in the mental part of the game.”
While veteran tennis players like No. 1 boys singles player Scott Gauthier, Jessica Burnett and No. 2 girls singles player Foliente anchor the team, pleasant surprises have sprung up all over the court for FLC.
The girls doubles team of Lauren Piner and Rachel Lupo, two girls who had never played competitive tennis but were both key members of the girls basketball team, have become a force in the league and moved from the No. 2 team for the Falcons to the No. 1 girls doubles team.
“They are a good illustration of athletes that know how to compete being able to pick it up,” Ralph Burnett said. “Whatever ball it happens to be, they do well.”
Sean Kadera, a soccer and basketball player for FLC that took a season off from tennis last year, returned to the team and has been a bright spot along with partner Christian Ashworth as the No. 1 boys doubles team.
Mitchell Gruner has helped solidify the teams No. 2 boys singles position, going 8-0 in his matches this season, despite being a freshmen.
“Mitchell is quiet and shy until he gets that tennis racquet in his hand, and he speaks well with that racquet,” Ralph Burnett said. “He’s a freshman, but he’s well beyond his years in maturity for his game.”
Another key to the Falcons’ success has been their ability to adapt on the court, stay calm and critically analyze their matches.
“Strokes improve because it’s muscle memory, serves become critical because its one-third of your game, but really, the mental game is definitely there for us,” Ralph Burnett said. “The one thing that gives us an edge over our competitors is how we can adjust mentally, depending on what’s coming off our racquets.”
The mental part of the game has been critical to the team overcoming a lack of experience said Gauthier.
“That’s a huge part of it,” he said. “If you get mad and stuff, you start hitting balls out and making mistakes.”
Burnett said he really emphasizes the mental part of the game.
“One thing that I really strive to do is build the mental side of this game,” he said.
The Falcons are now entering the part of the season where players will move on or be eliminated based on their individual performances.
At the SDL playoffs Gauthier, Gruner, Jessica Burnett and Foliente will represent the Falcons in the singles tournament Monday. Ralph Burnett has yet to decide who will represent the Falcons at the doubles playoffs Wednesday.