GREENVILLE — Jessica Milo was worried about her senior season on the Riverheads High School tennis team.
In the classroom she was carrying a heavy load and spending half a day at Governor’s School. On the tennis court the pressure was equally intense. As the only senior on a team of sophomores and freshman, she had to not only win on the court as the Gladiators’ No. 1 singles player, but she had to be team captain and mentor to the younger, inexperienced players.
And, finally, after making it to state doubles play last year, she had to search for a new doubles partner when her partner chose not to play tennis this year.
Through it all, Milo persevered. She kept smiling and working and studying and mentoring her young team and gradually everything fell into place. In singles action, she just kept working and fine-tuning even as she bumped up against the opposing team’s best player match after match. She won some and lost some but as the season went on the wins began to fall into place.
Finding the right doubles partner from the young Gladiator ranks proved a little harder. Finally after the third match of the year, she and Riverheads coach Reuben Siskin thought they had hit upon the right person to complement her in No. 1 doubles play — No. 4 singles player Lauren Reese.
They were right.
On Friday, the doubles duo will be playing in the state 1A doubles tournament at Radford University at 9 a.m. They earned the trip after winning the Region IB championship last week. Individually, Milo was the regional runner-up in singles action last week. The Gladiators as a team will play in the state semifinals today at Gloucester.
According to Siskin, the whole rags-to-riches story of the Gladiators this season has been because of his senior captain.
“Jess is the rock of our team. She is the leader," he said. "As the only senior among the sophomores and freshmen, they all look to her. She has played four years and she knows my coaching methods and can teach the girls the culture of Riverheads tennis.”
But the real turnaround story is that the doubles duo of Milo and Reese are in the running for a state title. The Milo part of the duo is understandable, but the Reese side of the story is amazing, simply because when the season started the sophomore had, literally, never picked up a racket.
“Well, I played once in gym class, but it wasn’t even a real racket,” said Reese with a smile. “I was playing softball, but got kind of tired of softball because I had been playing it since I was 3. My older sister played tennis and I talked to her and I talked to Coach Siskin in class and he talked me into it.”
Turns out that she was a natural.
Already an athlete, Reese was was able to transfer those skills to her new-found sport.
“In some ways it is similar to softball with the hitting and power needed to get it over the net,” she said.
As the season progressed, so did Reese’s play. Turns out that she was especially talented at the net. Milo’s doubles strength, on the other hand, was in the backcourt and in her savvy ball placement.
Early in the season, Siskin was pondering his doubles lineup. The first partners he matched with Milo just weren’t in sync, but he began to think that pairing his No. 1 and No. 4 singles players together might work.
“Jess is the leader of the team and the veteran. I went to her and asked her what would work best for her," Siskin said. "We both thought that they would balance each other nicely. Lauren is a strong net person and she has grown into the game and Jess has such good placement of the ball.”
The move clicked with everyone and as the season went along, the two players — who barely knew each other when the season began — became close friends as well as good playing partners.
“I knew we could do it, but that it would take some hard work,” Milo said. “It was definitely scary for me starting over, but we found that we have great chemistry.”
“Jess has really helped me a lot with my playing, especially my backcourt play. I am really enjoying tennis," said Reese of her new-found love of the game. "It is fun and more laid-back than softball. Unlike in other sports, all of the mistakes are on me in tennis; you can’t blame anyone else.”
Even though they didn’t know each other before the season, turns out Milo and Reese have a lot in common. Both young ladies are academically driven and both have the same mindset as athletes.
“We definitely want to win and to have fun,” Reese said. “We both know that we need to have fun to win. If we are not having fun, then we don’t win. We also hold each other up if either of us has an off day.”
“Lauren has really improved by leaps and bounds," explained Milo. "When we started out, she was new and fresh and I was rusty from the off-season. But we have taken it day by day. We work on our weaknesses and concentrate on improving. We definitely feed off of each other’s energy.”
Step by step as the season went on, their playing just clicked. Now they, and the entire team, are peaking at exactly the right time.
“Jess has had a tough course load this year, but she is a leader," said the Gladiator coach. "Now that school is over and we are into tournament play, she can concentrate on tennis. Everyone is happier and playing better.”
For Milo, a spur-of-the-moment decision to play tennis as a freshman has really paid off four years later with trips to the state tournament this week in doubles and as a team.
Having graduated, the academic pressures are gone, but s he knows this week is her last hurrah.
Next year, Milo plans to attend the University of Lynchburg, where she will study to become a nurse practitioner with the ultimate goal of pursuing a doctorate in the field. So tennis will become merely a recreational pursuit.
“It is exciting to be in the state both as a team and in doubles," she said. "It is exciting to have all seven girls practicing together and cheering us on. I am a little nervous, but more excited than nervous. It is the last chance to show what we can do.”