Augusta's Elise Richardson qualifies to state as Circle finishes runner-up in 4A regional

Lionel Tipton
The Circle Lady Thunderbirds tennis team finished runner up as they honored their teammate Kilar Gillispie, who passed away this summer.

EL DORADO – A year ago, Circle’s girls tennis team was Class 4A state runner-up.

But this season, the Thunderbirds had to move on without seniors Annabelle Adams (third in singles) and Lanna Chase and Kenzi Gillispie (doubles runners-up) as well as head coach Cran Chase.

Some minimal experience did return, so it wasn’t a total rebuild.

“We weren’t starting at Square One; it was more like Square Three,” first-year coach Shawn Lehecka said. 

Although the cupboard wasn’t bare, there wasn’t a lot of varsity experience greeting Lehecka. But they collectively pulled together and managed a runner-up finish in Saturday’s regional behind Wellington.

“But I put a lot of that on the girls. They were able to bond with each other and push each other,” Lehecka said. “It means a lot when you have individuals that are willing to be there for each other. There were times throughout the year that they kind of did their own thing when it came to some team bonding or having the rides in the tennis van or having some conversations.

“All those things go into it, and that team chemistry is huge.” 

Alejandra Gaitan

Circle did get a boost from getting Alejandra Gaitan, a senior foreign-exchange student from Spain, who managed a runner-up finish in Saturday’s regional and leads five Thunderbirds into next weekend’s 4A state tournament in Winfield.

She received a first-round bye, then dropped just one game in her next two matches, winning both in straight sets.

In the final, she took on Chapman’s undefeated Elyssa Frieze, who finished fifth at state as a freshman last year. Gaitan managed to win two games from Frieze – the only two Frieze surrendered all day – but had to settle for second after a 6-2, 6-0 loss. Frieze (29-0) has handed Gaitan (21-4) two of her four losses this season.

“She’s like a wall,” Gaitan said of Frieze. “It doesn’t matter where I put it; she always hits it back.

“I just don’t know how to play against her, but I think I do a great job with the things that I had.”

She said she’s not sure if she has any tricks up her sleeve to throw at Frieze should they meet at state.

“I’m trying a lot of things, and none of them are working,” Gaitan said. “So I’m just going to practice a little bit more on my backhand and try new things.”

Even though Frieze won convincingly, the match was still a good one, Lehecka said.

“They both battled hard,” he said. “They both had long rallies. You can’t say that both of them aren’t great players when they’re going back and forth with lots of power. (Frieze) defended well, she had as much power as (Gaitan), but at the same time, she was more precise, she was good on getting her feet in the right place and just outlasted on a lot of the rallies in the whole match.

“They’re both where they should be, at that (Nos.) 1 and 2 spot.”

Gaitan said that one of the contrasts with tennis in Spain is that in the United States, some girls don’t take up the sport until high school. Conversely, she first picked up a racket at age 4. That knowledge can provide a large advantage, she said.

“Some of them are really, really good, but they don’t have that match experience,” she said. “Sometimes, they face another top player, and they don’t really know what to do.”

Gaitan, considered a senior this year, is actually a junior by Spain’s standards and will have one more year to go once she returns home. She said she was thrilled to achieve a spot at state.

 “I’m having fun,” Gaitan said. “I think I’m doing great in sports, getting very good grades in school, and I’m really liking it.”

After tennis season, Gaitan said she plans to do powerlifting as well as cheerleading, and she might even be able to assist Lehecka with the T-Birds’ boys team in the spring.

Orioles’ 11-year drought ends

Augusta's Elise Richardson qualified for Class 4A tennis state as a singles player

Augusta coach Nathan Stevens has guided the Orioles’ tennis fortunes for 19 years, but since 2010, no Augusta player has made it to state.

All that ended at this regional – and with a freshman, no less.

Elise Richardson took fifth place and inserted herself into the state tournament field. 

“It’s cool,” she said of carrying the banner for Augusta. “I like it.

“I didn’t think I’d make it, but I did! I’m proud of myself.”

Stevens said it felt good to break through with a state competitor.

“It’s great to do that, especially as a freshman,” he said. “That’s exciting.”

He said Richardson’s achievement might convince other Orioles to give tennis a try. The Augusta doubles teams also made a strong showing as well, coming up just short to Circle’s Johnson and Son.

“I’m really hoping for our program, having a success like this is going to encourage other girls to come out and start playing earlier,” Stevens said. 

Circle doubles its pleasure

Lily Son (left) and Erin Johnson (right) qualify as a doubles pair in 4A doubles for the first time.

In addition to Gaitan, both Circle doubles teams advanced to state. Senior Laynie Glaves and freshman Londyn Soto finished fourth, and seniors Erin Johnson and Lily Son were fifth. The top six teams advanced.

But to get there, both teams were in three-set matches that didn’t conclude until after 9 p.m. – a total of 10 hours of play for the day.

It was a long haul, but getting five players to state makes it all worth it, Lehecka said. By the end of the regional, fatigue was setting in, he said. 

“It was hard when we had our meetings in between on the crossover, I was talking to them, and you could see it, you could feel it,” he said. “I felt really bad for what they were having to go through, but I’m very proud of them and how they were able to persevere through all the challenges, just to be able to go through all those long matches – and three sets on some of them. They definitely played well, and it showed in the end.” 

Circle freshman Londyn Soto (left) and senior Laynie Glaves (right) and also qualified for state in the doubles department. They'll compete in Winfield next week in the Class 4A state tournament.

As fate would have it, in the second round, the teams faced off against each other. Glaves and Soto advanced, sending Johnson and Son to the consolation bracket.

But afterward, once the berths were secured, all four were beaming over getting to state – and Circle’s runner-up finish.

Soto said she was surprised at the doubles success with Glaves.

“I didn’t expect that at all,” she said. “I was just playing for fun. I didn’t even think I’d be on varsity.”

Darkness had fallen when the day’s play concluded, and all four girls said it was grueling but satisfying.

“It’s been a long day,” Soto said. 

As the senior partner of the team, Glaves had nice things to say about Soto, her freshman partner.

“I love Londyn,” she said. “She’s super-good and a very competent player and a good athlete in general. (There’s) nothing you would expect from a freshman; everyone thinks she’s a senior.

“We work very well together.”

Son said: “It feels good as a senior (to go to state). I’m so exhausted right now, and for you guys listening to this, I’ve been awake since 7 in the morning. And it’s 9:20 p.m.! I’m grateful, though.”

Johnson said the achievement is even more impressive, considering the newness of everyone to varsity. But the patience was eventually rewarded, even though it was hours in the making.

“This is big,” she said. “Especially with all five of us going, it will be a lot of fun.”

Glaves said going to state will be another memorable part of her senior year.

“It’s super-cool,” she said. “I’m really happy with how we played (Saturday). We finished the day strong.”

There will be a new 4A singles champion

In last year’s 4A final, Trinity Academy sophomore Isabella Sebits captured the title, 6-0, 6-0, over Collegiate’s Emma Mantovani. 

But this year, Trinity’s contingent at the regional didn’t include Sebits.

“(She has been battling) two injuries,” Trinity coach Michael Bond said. “One in her knee, and another in her back. The back (injury) we didn’t see coming; the knee we were working on rehabbing to get her ready for regionals. At this point, it’s recommended for medical purposes that she suspends all physical activity for the next three months.”

Sebits, a junior, will be able to return next year and try to reclaim the title she won in 2020, Bond said.

“She’ll be back next year, and I’m sure with a burning passion to come back out,” he said.

Charles Chaney has been the Sports Editor for the Butler County Times-Gazette since Aug. 2019. You can reach him at cchaney@butlercountytimesgazette.com or on Twitter at @ChuckChaneyBCTG.