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Hard Work Earns Girls Tennis Team a Top-10 State Finish

Manasa Gollapalli was staring defeat in the face.

It was the Girls Tennis Regional Tournament, and Gollapalli, a Greenhills sophomore who plays #4 singles for the team, had already lost the first set of her match 6-0. Now she was losing the second set 5-2 — one game from losing the match. It was nearly 90 degrees out. Gollapalli was running on fumes.

But somehow, she didn’t give in. Rather, Head Coach Mark Randolph said, “she clawed back from the edge.” Gollapalli fought back to win an improbable victory, and earn the points that won Greenhills a spot in the state tournament.

The hard-fought win, Randolph says, embodies what the team has worked towards this season. The Gryphons have been fighting back against adversity since even before the season began, when they lost two key players, and their practice schedule has been disrupted by COVID. The result has been a season of fluctuating lineups, hours of travel, and one obstacle after another. And still, the team continued preparing for a trip to the state tournament, and hoping for a top-10 state finish.

“We’re grateful to have the season, but it’s been chaos,” Randolph said. “I’m really proud of the kids and of our coaching team for being able to be foul-weather sailors.”

The theme of the year, Randolph says, has been flexibility. The team plays one of the most challenging schedules of any Division IV school: they play nearby Division I schools, and plenty of highly-ranked opponents from Divisions II and III. The Gryphons are also one of the few teams that travel across the state to compete against rivals in Western Michigan. It’s a major investment of time and energy — in one recent week, Randolph said, the team traveled 398 miles — that allows the team to compete against the best in the state.

“If you’re going to be on Greenhills women’s tennis,” he said, “you have decided you’re going to make an exceptional commitment.”

That commitment is what allows the team to improve so much during the season, even relative to peers. Early in the season, for instance, Gollapalli lost to a player from Academy of the Sacred Heart 6-2, 6-2. Later, Gollapalli faced the same opponent again—and won a set. Georgie Branch, a junior who plays #2 singles, suffered a definitive loss to a Cranbrook opponent early in the season—then took the same opponent all the way to a tiebreak the next time they played.

The team has also gotten welcome contributions from unlikely sources. Juniors Sabeen Malik and Lana Kouatli—neither of whom had ever played varsity tennis before this season—are the team’s #3 doubles pair, and dominated at the Regional Tournament. Sophomores Sophia Rich and Yasmeen Ogaily makes up the #4 doubles pair and won crucial points for Greenhills throughout the season.

Meanwhile, while the team’s top-seeded players are still shaking off the rust of a lost season, they’re certainly making progress. Junior Rukmini Nallamothu, who plays #1 singles, has gotten stronger as the season goes on: in what Randolph called “kind of a grudge match,” she won a three-set marathon at Regionals. The team’s #1 doubles pair, meanwhile, is an unlikely grouping: senior Supriya Macha and freshman Parini Rao. Opponents already try to avoid having to face Greenhills #1 doubles, Randolph said—and they’re still getting better. “They still have two or three more gears to which they can go,” Randolph said.

As the Gryphons approached the state tournament and the end of the season, Randolph continued to balance optimism and realism. It’s his 48th season coaching tennis, so he’s working to thread a familiar needle: he doesn’t want his team to get their hopes too high, but he does want them to stretch.

“If there’s one thing that I’ve been really proud of in my career, it’s that my teams generally overachieve,” he said. “We’re focused, we work hard on technique, we work hard on strategy, we work hard on mental toughness. So I’m hoping that, once again, we can overachieve.”

The hard work is evident. The Gryphons have faced obstacles all season, but somehow, as the season wound down, they found themselves qualified for the state tournament, where they indeed earned the top-10 finish they were striving for—they finished 9th in the state.

“Their hard work is really paying off, and that excites them,” Randolph said. “They feel like a team.”

By James Schapiro, Greenhills School Staff Writer

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