Photo by Heather Middleton
By Brian Paglia
They came back with new tricks. Joseph Messam had learned a new grip for his backhand, and Ricky Grace had learned a new, more powerful serve.
Messam and Grace, along with Valario White Jr., had spent the summer months at tennis camps. Messam went as far as to the University of Colorado. White went to one at Emory University. Grace attend a camp held by the trio's coach at Lovejoy, Kenny Peoples.
When they returned for the start of the tennis season, they did so with new insight into tennis and a better grasp on the subtleties of the sport. After all, at the end of last season, Peoples told Messam, Grace and White that they would be counted on to take over as the Wildcats top singles players.
"It put pressure on us," Grace said. "We had a lot to learn."
So far, they have delivered. Lovejoy captured the No. 1 seed in Region 4-AAAA with a doubleheader win over North Clayton (4-1) and Forest Park (3-2) on Monday.
Lovejoy (11-2, 10-0 Region 4-AAAA) and Forest Park (8-1, 8-1) both came into Monday's match undefeated in the region. The Wildcats left with the top seed when the region tournament begins April 11.
And Messam, Grace and White Jr. have been at the forefront of Lovejoy's surge. In one season, they have begun to make the transformation into pure tennis players dedicated to the sport.
That transformation began last summer with the trio's whirlwind tour of tennis camps. Messam, who took up the sport as a freshman, also took private lessons at the Peterson School of Tennis over the summer and began playing in United States Tennis Association tournaments.
"Everybody started to begin to understand the game of tennis as a whole," Messam said. "Not just trying to keep the ball in play until (the opponent) messes up. It wasn't about that.
"Everybody started getting in depth with tennis, wanting to get better at it and pursue it in college. We knew we just had to step up and do something extra to get there."
Their work over the summer paid dividends immediately. Lovejoy got off to a hot start, going 4-0 before losing two out of three matches at the Peachtree City Invitational in early March.
But even in the midst of that speed bump, the Wildcats relished the opportunity to play against schools with dedicated programs that make regular appearances in the state tournament.
"It was a great experience," Grace said. "It showed us what the state tournament will be like. It showed us some real good competition. It opened our eyes. We'd just been playing Clayton County schools."
The Wildcats haven't lost since the Peachtree City Invitational, and with the No. 1 seed in the upcoming region tournament, and the favorable path that it brings, Lovejoy is well within striking distance of the state tournament.
But Messam and Grace said they are focused on winning the region championship.
"The school has banners for everything else," Messam said, "except for tennis."