When Donna Keim took over the Corvallis High girls tennis program for the 2016 season, the Spartans were coming off a shared 5A state title.
Having spent two years in the program, Keim liked the makeup of the team coming back and the foundation that had been set by former coach Andy Hackethorn.
But she wanted to make a few changes.
The biggest was to try to get the players to rethink their approach to the sport.
“The biggest key I wanted to make was that to take an individual sport and make the girls understand they were still a team,” Keim said Saturday afternoon as she watched her 2019 team add a fifth straight team title at the Tualatin Hills Tennis Center in Beaverton.
“I always said if they could start feeling more ownership toward the team, and not worry so much about their own personal game, they play harder, they play tougher. Because they’re not just doing it for themselves any more, they’re doing it for those team points.”
That philosophy has certainly stuck with the players and helped the Spartans remain a dominant force. They win the title by a 30-10.5 margin in 2018 and won this year's by a 21-8 margin.
Saturday’s win marked the fourth time a program has won at least five straight titles; Jesuit (1994-99) and Sunset (1978-83) each won six straight and Jesuit had another stretch of five straight from 2005-10. It’s the sixth overall title for the Spartans, who also won in 1966.
“It’s definitely a legacy that we’re just kind of trying to continue,” said junior Journey Lipscomb, who was third in the singles tournament. “It’s really cool to have such a talented program to be a part of and to help that program continue. And just to get the opportunity to work with so many really talented and motivated players is really cool.”
One way Keim went about instilling the team-first mentality was for the veteran players to take the newcomers under their wings in the offseason and invite them to train together or play other tournaments, as well as encourage them to take more lessons.
“It certainly motivates you if you feel like you’re more a part of a team because you want to perform well, not just for yourself but for your team you have a good attitude and stay in it and stick with it every time because you know you have a whole team to support,” said senior Olivia McGough, who teamed with junior Sarah Forester to win their second straight doubles title Saturday.
Added Forester: “It’s been a blast. I never would have thought we could really have this much fun or made this strong of a connection playing with the team that we have. We just all have a really strong bond and we’ve become so close and we all just improved so much over the past few years, training with each other.”
That’s the part Keim is most proud of, not the blue trophies that the program has collected.
“It’s very rewarding because all of the girls are so, so nice,” Keim said. “And it makes it very easy for me as a coach when they’re willing to put in that extra effort, they’re willing to see that this is important, but also that they can do it and believe in them and belief in themselves.”
The Spartans have dominated the last two state tournaments, thanks in part to the two doubles titles by McGough and Forester, but also with Anna Kern winning three straight singles titles.
Kern has left a mark on the program not only on the court, but the way she has helped her teammates.
“She’s so inspiring because you think being on top would make it so much harder for you to perform at your best all the time because you have so much pressure on you, but she takes it all with such a stride,” McGough said. “She’s so calm in all her matches and she really just outplays herself every time.”
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Keim watched Kern grow into a strong leader this season.
“She’s always been an awesome, awesome tennis player, but she’s become an amazing leader,” Keim said, noting that Kern had taken a bit of a backseat to her sister Tessa, who graduated last year. “… She’s always had that leadership but she let her sister have that because she was a year older.”
Kern said she never really thought about potentially being a part of a program that dominated the 5A level after winning a team title her freshman season.
“It definitely would be hard to imagine because every year has been so different and a whole different battle,” she said. “I don’t think I thought about it a lot. Just take it one year at a time and now here we are so it’s been really great.”
With Kern and McGough gone, the Spartans have some big shoes to fill. Can they make it six straight titles in 2020?
With Forester and Lipsomb returning, they have a chance.
“It’s definitely not going to be as easy as it was these past two years,” Forester said. “But I think if we can really just work hard as a team and come back strong next year I think we can be competitive and hopefully get a sixth straight title.”
Lipscomb echoed those thoughts.
“It’s going to be tough, but I think it’s going to really motivate us to work really hard during the offseason and just kind of get to know some other players on our team that we think can definitely step up next year,” she said. “I think we really want to win another title next year and I think we really want to continue that legacy. We’ll see.”
Keim said the recipe for a state title is fairly simple in concept: You need a combination of either two singles players and a doubles team or two doubles teams and a singles player that can reach the quarterfinals and win at least one of them.
“We have the potential,” she said. “But you’ve got to have the depth. That is something that we keep working on.”
Keim already has a few ideas for next season and has already begun encouraging the returners to work with younger players.
Do that and the Spartans could keep the dynasty rolling.
“I think we’ve got at least one more in us,” Keim said. “And who knows, you never know who’s going to show up.”
That team concept Keim wanted to build shows in many ways. Kern, who is headed to Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California, for college, said she will certainly be following along next season.
“I still have a lot of friends on the team that will be playing next year so I will definitely stay updated and cheer them on and hope they do well,” she said. “I think they should do pretty well because our team has a really good energy.”