Chris Lucas is in his fifth season as head girls tennis coach at Cape Fear High School.
He inherited a program where most of the players hadn’t played the sport until they went out for the Cape Fear team.
But five years of pushing his players to perform their best reached a peak last month when Cape Fear defeated perennial Cumberland County tennis power Terry Sanford 6-3 in the second meeting between the teams this season.
According to retired Terry Sanford tennis coach and local high school tennis historian Gil Bowman, it was the first time since the 2003-2004 tennis season that Cape Fear won a match over the Bulldogs.
Since coming to Cape Fear from Pinecrest High School, Lucas has been trying to change the tennis culture at the school. It’s a slow process, but the win over Terry Sanford shows Lucas is on the right track.
Lucas said his primary goal is to turn each of his players into a true tennis player and not just an athlete with a tennis racquet in hand. That means watching professional players on television, understanding the strategy and mental aspect of the game and playing as much tournament tennis outside the high school season as possible.
“My biggest hope is they will fall in love with every aspect of the game,’’ he said. “I’m very fortunate I’ve had coachable girls and ones that have bought into that.’’
This year’s team has only one player, freshman Brooke Bieniek, who played the sport before she got to Cape Fear.
Bieniek plays No. 1 singles and won at both singles and doubles in the match with Terry Sanford. Her parents are both physical education teachers at nearby Mac Williams Middle School and got her into the sport at the age of seven.
“I love just hitting shots and getting all the emotions out,’’ she said. “Like if you had a bad day at school you just hit and hit a ball. It’s fun. Especially with teammates.’’
She gives all the credit for the team’s success to Lucas. “He’s taught us a lot of stuff and made us what we are today,’’ she said.
Lucas said that’s part of his philosophy, which he sums up in the phrase, "Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn."
“Every single match is a match where you can learn,’’ he said. “We broke down why we won that match, what we did right and what we didn’t do before.’’
Senior Paige Cameron, who plays No. 2 singles, agreed with Bieniek and said Lucas has always encouraged the team, even when they lost a match 9-0.
“Everything he’s done has pushed us to where we were when we finally beat them (Terry Sanford),’’ Cameron said. “Honestly, that was the best night because that’s what we’ve been looking forward to, beating Terry Sanford, and we finally did it.’’
Cameron, who is the team captain, said the energy the team got from newcomers like Bieniek was a big boost to this year’s team.
“The biggest energy is them being positive whether they are playing or not,’’ she said, “showing support for all the girls.’’
Dajia Rucker, a junior, won at fifth court singles and teamed with Bieniek to win in doubles against Terry Sanford. “Everyone just stepped up,’’ she said. “We knew we wanted to beat Terry Sanford, so that’s what we did.’’
But the Colts know they must keep working. “I think the main thing is we don’t take this one for granted,’’ Cameron said. “We need to play with the best we have and do the best that we can no matter who we are playing.’’
Meanwhile, Lucas is looking further down the road, hoping to continue to change the tennis culture not just at the school but in the community.
“Every summer, we hold a clinic for kids, ages 7-13, and every year it’s grown,’’ he said. “The younger we can get them, the better. We want to be a program that turns in good team after good team and is a revolving door,’’ he said.
Pictured from top to bottom: Brooke Bieniek, Paige Cameron, Dajia Rucker