BELOIT- A welcoming atmosphere and the opportunity to compete has helped to transform the Beloit Memorial girls tennis program.
Fourth-year head coach Leigha Francis already has 23 girls out this fall, and is expecting a few more to trickle in as school starts.
While the team still has plenty of work to do before they are considered a competitive team in the Big Eight Conference, Francis is pleased with the growth she's seen.
"This is as many girls as we've ever had," Francis said. "I think we're just a very inclusive group. We've had every kind of ethnicity on this team. We've had foreign exchange students, every different kind of religion. It's been really neat to see the way the girls get to know each other and gel as a team as the season goes on.
"We want to win, but what we really focus on is the value of sports, how it can help them beyond the tennis court and even beyond Beloit. We do a lot of team-building and a lot of community service as well."
Francis has a handful of seniors on the team, including four that are returning from previous years.
"We have a lot of kids who come out as seniors for the first time," Francis said. "They might have been cut from other sports, or they are just looking for some way to be involved. We get quite a few kids who have never played before because we don't have any kind of feeder system here in Beloit. That's definitely been a challenge. I know the Janesville programs are really improving and a big reason why is they have an indoor facility to practice at all year. The kids who really want to focus on tennis can do that, and that's why a lot of the Madison schools have success as well. You can start lessons early, and a lot of those kids have been playing since they were three or four years old."
The Purple Knights opened the season by getting shut out against a typically strong Sun Prairie team.
Playing number one singles is senior Isabella Moore, who fell 6-0, 6-1 to Sun Praire's top player Lauren Hope.
"Isabella switched from doubles to singles midway through last season," Francis said. "And she is really embracing her role as a captain. That's been great to see."
Seniors Claire Boggs, Fatima Morales and Emily Severiaro fill out the remaining singles spots.
The top doubles team is Jayda McKinley and Candiss Edwards, while Yocelyn Camacho and Diya Patel have the number two spot. Amanda Quononez and Tanya Casique round out the varsity squad as the number three doubles team.
For the first time, Francis is also able to field a compete JV team, which helps against a Sun Prairie squad that carries 58 girls on their squad and sent 30 players to Beloit Memorial Thursday.
"Tennis is a no-cut sport in the WIAA," Francis said. "So that allows the kids who are really serious to play, and also allows the kids who want to just be involved to play as well."
• UP NEXT: The Purple Knights will be back in action Saturday when they play an invitational at Mukwonago High School.