By Tris Wykes
LEBANON – Thursday’s tennis match was nearly compete, the Lebanon High girls en route to an 8-1 victory over Plymouth on the Carter Community Building Association’s sunny courts.
Raiders coach Rob Johnstone rolled a cart of fuzzy, yellow balls up a wooden ramp and into an equipment shed, pausing as he reached the threshold.
“I can’t tell you how much I enjoy this,” the Plainfield resident said. “What a great afternoon.”
Better known as his school’s 27-year boys soccer coach, Johnstone has moonlighted the past four springs as boss of the girls tennis team.
Lebanon couldn’t field a team as recently as 2016 because of low participation, was winless in 2017 and 2-12 the year after. A jump to 5-7 two years ago was promising, but the Raiders are now 6-1 and in the hunt for NHIAA Division III’s top seed when the playoffs begin later this month.
“We’re a small team but we prove ourselves every time we have a match,” said senior Keira Hines, a first-year player who nonetheless is the Raiders’ No. 1 singles competitor and who teams with No. 2 singles player and classmate Kaeley Skakalski as Lebanon’s top doubles pair.
“It’s a blessing to be on a team where positive energy is a huge part of our success. I would have never known that the program struggled before. I’m having so much fun.”
Much of that positivity comes from Johnstone, who’s played tennis since childhood but never on a team. Internet research has helped him understand some of the sport’s finer points, but the Manchester West High and Middlebury College graduate has also used his charismatic social skills to connect with players and help their learning curves spike upwards.
There aren’t many bad days in Johnstone’s world, and the Windsor High English teacher’s outlook plays well with teens buffeted by academic, social and athletic pressures.
“It’s been good for me because I can truly take pleasure in the small-picture moments,” said Johnstone, whose highly-competitive nature manifests itself more often on the futbol pitch. “We only have eight girls, but they’re like sponges and their improvement during the last month has been incredible.
“We’re seeing some legitimately good tennis. Trust me, our rallies didn’t look like this a few weeks ago.”
Another big boost has been the addition of assistant coach Rick Hines, Keira’s father. The Midwesterner is Johnstone’s frequent doubles partner at a local tennis club and brings detailed focus, helping players with their grips, footwork, positioning and strategy. The Raiders don’t hit the ball particularly hard, but they’re consistent at keeping it in play and wearing down foes.
“I can run plenty of drills, but Rick’s introduced that next-level thinking of how to apply them when someone’s on the other side of the net,” Johnstone said.
Hines, who lost, 8-2, on Thursday, is a former softball player who often has to face opponents for whom tennis is their primary sport. Skakalski, an 8-6 victor against Plymouth, plays field hockey during the fall and is the younger sister of former Raiders three-sport athlete Caden Skakalski, now a Plymouth State wrestler. Hines and Skalski won the No. 1 doubles point against Plymouth (1-2).
Adaa Karanwal won, 8-4, at No. 3 singles on Thursday and Crisi Patel and Aesha Soni each triumphed, 8-0, at No. 4 and No. 5, before teaming for a No. 2 doubles triumph. Sally Rainey, Lebanon’s all-state soccer goalkeeper and basketball standout, put up an 8-1 victory in the final singles slot. Karanwal and Ella Gessner won at No. 3 doubles.
“It’s been super awesome and fun,” said Rainey, who was convinced to play tennis competitively for the first time during a pickle ball game with Johnstone earlier this year. “It’s hard to play a sport with a racket and you have to been more controlled and calm in this sport, but everyone’s been really welcoming.”
Rainey, who will play soccer at UNH starting in the fall, was the unquestioned leader of her other Raiders teams. Being lower on the depth chart is a different experience, but one the accomplished athlete has picked up quickly.
“It’s been easy to step back and let Kaeley and Keira play tennis better than me,” Rainey said. “They’ve done a very good job of being inclusive so that everyone feels comfortable. It’s something completely brand new and that’s a big part of why I’ve enjoyed this.”
Word has begun to spread throughout the school that girls tennis is on a roll. The Raiders boys tennis program won state titles in 2016 and 2017 and it feels like the girls are building towards a postseason run of their own.
“Everybody wants to win and is pretty competitive with each other and with other teams,” Rainey said. “That alone has elevated us.”
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