TEWKSBURY — Rick Keene couldn’t help but laugh when he told a story about the first practice he had as the coach of the newly named JV Boys Tennis team.
"I came down to the first practice and the boys were already together on the court. I saw them all and they were all hitting the ball (like they were swatting flies). I said 'I think someone just dropped a bee-hive or something," he said with a laugh, while three of his senior players Darryl Quek, Brandon Pham and Aklilu Aron also laughed and agreed to the story.
That practice happened in the spring of 2016.
On Monday afternoon, the team, now in its third year as a varsity program, competed in the Division 2 North Sectional Tournament, which is believed to be the first time in program history.
Seriously, how does that happen?
"To see from that experience until now, is just unbelievable and a complete transformation," added Keene.
After the program had been cut twice, once in the early 1980s and the second time in the mid 1990s, TMHS Athletic Director Ron Drouin was able to bring the program back, first as a JV team in 2015 and 2016 before going to varsity for the 2017 season.
"I think it was only (former player) James Taggert and (current senior) Ben Froment who had played tennis prior to that year we had the JV team," said Keene. "All of the other boys who came on that season, none of them had played tennis."
When Keene saw his players attacking "the bee-hive," he admitted that he uttered the words to himself, "what in the world am I getting myself into"?
That's when coaching comes in. Keene went over the basics — showed the kids how to hold the racquet the right way, explained the rules, strategies and went over techniques.
"You try to give them confidence because the sport is about confidence," he said. "Then you try to add some technique and strategies to it and then of course practice. It's about hitting the ball, muscle memory — you hit a thousand balls and it just comes naturally and then you don't have to think about your swing because you have done it one hundred times."
Added Aron, "We get great coaching. Tennis is not a super simple game. There's a lot of strategy and technique. Coach Keene gives us drills to make sure that we make our shots. You should have seen us when we first started. I know the first time I tried to hit the ball, I was grabbing onto the racquet, holding it all wrong, so I definitely improved a lot."
Last year's team finished with a 3-13 record. So heading into this season, no one really knew if the Redmen could make that next step and really compete with the rest of the teams in the tough Merrimack Valley Conference (4 other MVC teams have qualified for the tournament, as did non-league opponent Burlington).
"Oh yeah, of course (I was surprised)," said Quek, the team's No. 2 singles player. "We didn't know (what to expect). We had a (3-13 record last year) and then this year we just kept climbing up. It's a big accomplishment for us. This is the first time we have qualified for the tournament, so it's a very big accomplishment for the team and for Tewksbury Memorial High School. This is just the third year for us as a varsity team and this is just amazing. We're all just speechless because we made it."
Last year Quek was a part of one of the two doubles teams before being switched to second singles, and obviously that's a big jump.
"Without my teammates and without my coach, there's nothing I can do (on the court)," said Quek, who will be attending UMass-Boston in the fall with aspirations of graduating in three years and maybe playing tennis. "I can't do everything by myself so I need help. My Coach is a great mentor and my teammates have been great. I know there's been some matches that have gone up and down and the scores don't reflect how the match went, but it is what it is.
"Honesty, I just feel like it's all about hard work. Since I started playing, I just play every week, I take lessons with Coach (Keene) and Coach Mary (McDonald) and I just played a bunch of tennis and practice, practice and practice, and this position is what I earned."
Just four matches into this season, Tewksbury surpassed its win total of last year, defeating Lawrence, Billerica, Lowell and Haverhill to start out 4-0. After that, the Redmen went 1-3, before beating Lowell and Haverhill again putting their record at 7-3. From there the team needed just one more win over its last five matches to make program history.After losses to Andover, North Andover and Methuen, the team was 7-6 and still needed one more win.
Another loss to Burlington made it do-or-die in the team's season final against Billerica.
"I thought we could (beat Billerica)," said Pham. "We had been playing great all season long so I wanted to see us continue that, keep up the momentum with all of the other previous matches that we had played."
Tewksbury's dream of reaching the state tournament came true as the Redmen did indeed defeat Billerica giving the team an 8-7 record, the first winning season in program history.
"I'm speechless and was just really surprised," said Pham. "I know we played great all season, but we had some tough losses."
Pham plays along with Pat Dunn as the team's second doubles team and he said it's an experience he won't soon forget.
"It's been fun and I've had a great time playing with him," said Pham, who will be attending UMass-Lowell to major in Bio-Medical Engineering. "Whenever we had our ups and downs, I just tried to cheer him on and then there's times when he'll cheer me on."
According to Keene and the players, the chemistry on the team certainly played a big factor in the success, but you can get along all you want, but it always comes down to practice and hard work.
"It feels awesome and I think it's a testament to how hard we all worked," said Aron, who will be going to MIT. "It's not just one person. We all show up everyday to practice, we put in the work, we have all worked hard and it's a great feeling."