By Dan McWilliams
The Knoxville Catholic High School girls tennis team is ranked as the nation’s No. 1 squad heading into this spring’s season.
Global tennis player rating system Universal Tennis Rating recently ranked the Lady Irish as tops in the country.
“The No. 1 ranking means so much because the girls on the team work so hard year-round,” said head coach Rusty Morris. “They travel and play tournaments and have great results in the tournaments, but with tennis there is very little recognition for individual tournament successes. The No. 1 ranking is that recognition and will continue to help them to work hard on their games. The girls who were in the lineup last year already had to deal with the pressure of being undefeated and state champions the year before, and they have been tested and are up to the task. The great thing is that they are such special people that they will help the new players in the lineup to deal with the added stress of being No. 1 in the nation.”
Senior and Furman signee Maeve Thornton of Knoxville Catholic is the two-time defending state singles champion, and it might have been three had not her freshman season been canceled because of COVID. She received the Knoxville News Sentinel PrepXtra “best in Knoxville” award as female tennis player of the year and PrepXtra’s “best in Tennessee” female tennis player of the year honor. She was also selected for the Tennessee Sports Writers Association (TSWA) all-state team.
Lady Irish junior Eleni Liakonis and sophomore Lillie Murphy are the defending state doubles champions. Eleni and Lillie were honorees for PrepXtra’s tennis player of the year. They also made the TSWA all-state team.
The Lady Irish are also the two-time defending state team champions.
“The team greatly enjoys playing as a team and is looking forward to the high school season,” Mr. Morris said. “The players on the team spend so much time traveling to tournaments where they play as individuals. The experience of playing as a team against the top-notch teams in our division is a great experience for them, and we as a team look forward to the challenges and the opportunity to face the obstacles together. The outlook for the team is to enjoy the experience of competing as a team and winning as many matches as possible.”
Knoxville Catholic’s schedule includes Baylor, whom they defeated for the team state title in the finals last spring.
“We are excited to play Baylor at home this year. They have been our biggest rival, and we have had to travel to Chattanooga to play them the past two years,” Mr. Morris said. “We are playing Baylor on April 18 at 4 p.m. at Tyson Family Tennis Center. We have also scheduled Ensworth and Brentwood Academy, and both of those teams have been state semifinalist the past two years. The first match is against Christian Academy of Knoxville on March 21, and the girls team will play at CAK. CAK has the two-time singles champion in the small private division in Allie Faulkner, so it will be a great match.”
Mr. Morris has plenty of help in his coaching duties.
“Karen Lorino has been the assistant coach for Catholic for quite some time now,” he said. “She and I were teammates at East Tennessee State University, and her husband, Steve Lorino, was my doubles partner at ETSU. Karen is a tremendous assistant coach. She specializes in being a great in-game coach and helps players deal with the psychological side of tennis. Alicia Haub and Jacob Lorino are also assistant coaches and are a great help to the team. Jacob played for Catholic and won a state singles individual title and two team state championships.”