HOLLAND – The West Ottawa girls tennis team has experienced unbridled success in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Red over the last six years.
The Panthers own an impressive streak of 35 consecutive dual wins dating back to 2017.
And while several factors have contributed to West Ottawa’s dominance, a devotion to reaching its full potential has been a mainstay.
“The girls have been terrifically dedicated,” said Panthers coach Pete Schwallier, who’s been at the helm of the program for 16 years.
“They've had access to all these different coaches helping them. It’s one thing to have it, it’s another thing to really take it in and use it and they have just 100-percent committed themselves to doing all of these things.
“Whether it be the strength training, the mental side of it or the on-court training. Just all of it. They’ve been doing so much.”
The Panthers will compete in a Lower Peninsula Division 1 Regional today at Hudsonville and chase a fifth-consecutive title. The LPD1 Finals are slated for June 2-3.
The last time West Ottawa lost a dual match to an O-K Red school was May 8, 2017, against Rockford.
Three days later, the Panthers avenged that loss by winning the conference tournament. They’ve won six straight O-K Red championships, including four outright.
“There’s a lot of pride in that, but I think it’s been earned with a lot of hard work,” West Ottawa sophomore Jessica Zhang said. “We put a lot of hard work into these matches. A lot of physical strength and effort along with the mental aspect of the game.”
Despite recently extending their current dual winning streak, the Panthers did finish second to Rockford in this week’s conference tournament by a single point, 60-59 – resulting in a shared league title.
Schwallier said the setback won’t change his team’s intense focus as the Panthers embark on the final two weeks of the season.
“These girls have worked really hard to not use wins and losses as a motivator,” he said. “Their core values are to be people of integrity and to give their very best. They are very adamant about that.
“They want to win very badly, but they do have this belief that the best way to get there is to not focus on how many wins we've had or which teams we’ve been beating this year. They maintain a strong character and work ethic on the court, and they have a belief that wins will be the result of that.”
The success of the program has been fueled by several people behind the scenes, as well as the team’s local club, the DeWitt Tennis Center.
Andy Blake is the team’s strength and conditioning coach and works with West Ottawa consistently throughout the season, while Hope College junior Kayla Wolma is looking toward a career in sports psychology and has been the Panthers’ mental training coach.
West Ottawa boys coach and girls assistant Brian Metz and past Kalamazoo College All-American David Borski also have played vital roles.
“It’s been a gradual ramp-up in the amount of community members who have been willing to volunteer as assistant coaches on our staff, and their expertise in particular areas has helped the girls’ development,” Schwallier said. “They are examples of individuals who have helped us make big gains.”
Sophomore Eden Hamilton said Blake and Wolma have been instrumental in assisting the team.
“He helps us do lifts and cardio drills to help with footwork and upper-body strength,” she said. “He also helps with nutrition, and it helps us play better throughout the season. Kayla helps us with our mental state, and we feel like we can play to our full potential because we are preparing ourselves mentally and physically.”
Former players Chloe Karp and Kennedy Dumas also helped set the bar.
Karp graduated in 2019, and according to Schwallier, was the best player to go through the program.
“A lot of young girls in middle school and the underclassmen watched what she did and how she trained and how she got good,” Schwallier said. “The girls started copying her training regiment, and now we have several Chloes. She was the catalyst, and then it was Kennedy Dumas, who was part of the young crew watching Chloe and then took it to the next level.”
Those who have benefited from looking up to past standouts include current singles players Chloe Duckworth and Kam Dumas, both seniors, junior Megan Blake and sophomore Danielle Lebster.
“This next group is continuing that,” Schwallier said. “These four have many young players in middle school who are watching them just as closely as they watched the girls before them. It just shows the power of role models and the value of having good role models.”
This year’s senior group also has influenced younger ones.
“The upperclassmen on our team have definitely set an example for me, starting in middle school,” Zhang said. “They’ve always been around, and I've always looked up to them when it comes to not only tennis but mindset, and how to carry yourself as a person.”
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTO courtesy of the Holland West Ottawa girls tennis program.