Cleveland boys tennis coach Emily Purvis doesn’t remember her team’s exact record in 2011, her first year as the Rams’ coach and the first year the school was in existence.
“It was 0 and a lot,” Purvis said Thursday as the Rams took on rival West Johnston. “None of the players had ever had any experience.”
That season, Cleveland’s team was made up of freshmen and sophomores. Since then, the team has matured and developed into a competitive bunch.
This season, the Rams’ first with seniors on the squad, Cleveland is 8-5 after a 7-2 victory over West Johnston. At 6-3 in the Eastern Carolina 3-A Conference, the Rams are tied for second place with C.B. Aycock.
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“I am very pleased with the progress that all the players are making,” said Purvis, who started coaching tennis as a first-year teacher after graduating from UNC in 2010. “They are making great strides, especially some of my upper seeds. My upperclassmen are taking on leadership roles.”
One of the two seniors on the squad, No. 1 singles player Jesse Olmstead, had never played competitive tennis before coming out as a sophomore. He has developed into a solid No. 1, compiling a 9-4 record in singles this season as well as playing doubles.
“Basketball and soccer were my two main sports growing up,” said Olmstead, who also played on the basketball and soccer teams at Cleveland. “I played tennis for fun every once in a while. In the spring of my sophomore year, I just thought I would give tennis a try and fell in love with it.
“It’s a game where you can either be by yourself or one other person. You fight for the team, but it’s all you at the same time. I play it all the time, watch it all time.”
Olmstead’s enthusiasm has carried over to his teammates, Purvis said.
“He’s the captain,” Purvis said. “He has a big leadership role on this team. The first year he would stay after practice and serve 100 or so balls. He would go out and hit on the weekend and he would look up (professionals Roger) Federer or (Novak) Djokovic on the Internet and watch their strokes and try to mimic their strokes.”
For Purvis, watching the progress her players have made as individuals as a team has been rewarding.
“For the most part, I have seen most of this team develop,” Purvis said. “Jesse came out his sophomore year and became very devoted and very motivated in the game. If you watch him, you wouldn’t know that it was just his third year of playing tennis. It is very gratifying to watch him and the other players grow over that period of time because I have been able to focus on them and develop their game and not have to worry about having to lose them.”
On Wednesday, the Rams swept the singles competition with a lineup of one senior (Olmstead), juniors Tyler Garner and Andrew Josupait, sophomores Thomas Baraldi and Quinton Gonzalez and freshman Dylan Betancourt.
“I had high expectations for this team because they have been working together for three seasons,” Purvis said. “We’ve been building as a team. But they have definitely exceeded my expectations. Our goal was first through third place (in the Conference) and to be tied for second is good.”
West Johnston, which is 7-4 and fourth in the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference, dropped to 7-5 overall.
“We were hoping to have a better year,” West Johnston coach Will Herring said. “We lost some tiebreakers here and there. We’re a solid team. Our conference has two tiers, and we are in the bottom of the upper tier. Clayton is probably going to win it, but Garner and East Wake are also battling. Those three are fighting it out for first place. Next year is our window. We have been to the state playoffs once time since I have been here and will be trying to get back.”
The Wildcats won a scrimmage against Cleveland in preseason, but lost matches that went to tiebreakers three matches Thursday.
For Olmstead, beating the neighboring school was fun. Not because of a sense of rivalry, but because of the competition.
“It’s not that much of a (heated) rivalry but it’s nice to play some guys that you know,” Olmstead said. “I just try to have fun every time I step on the court and play as hard as I can. I’m not worried about the result as how much effort I give in the match.”
And that kind of attitude and effort has filtered over to his teammates.
“It’s been really fun,” Olmstead said. “When I started taking it a little bit more seriously, some of the other guys on the team did too. I think that was the best part of it that I helped inspire them to push themselves.
“It’s a great experience seeing all the guys get better. Seeing them get better gives me drive to get better too.”
The result is a program that has come a long way from a winless first season.
“When we would walk up sophomore year, the other team would laugh and say we can play our guys who aren’t even seeded,” Olmstead said.
“But now, we have opened some eyes. Teams know they have to come out and play against. We have gotten some respect.”