The bright green ball lights up in the setting sun, as two tennis players hit back and forth, locked in an intense struggle of backhands and forehands. The rally draws on until one of the players forces her opponent into a corner. The opponent, in a last ditch effort takes one more swing at the neon ball, sending the blur of green into the net. A loud cheer erupts as excited teammates run onto the court, knowing that in that moment, both the match and the NCS title had gone to Piedmont.
On Saturday Nov. 14, a group of five freshmen, two sophomores, three juniors and four seniors from the women’s varsity tennis team gathered on the Piedmont City Courts to represent Piedmont in the women’s tennis NCS tournament. Coach Neil Rothenberg’s final season with the team was drawing to a close and in a few matches it would be over. In this moment, the team wanted to win the title for their school, each other and their coach.
“Overall the season has been really successful, we won NCS for the third year in a row, and it was really nice to end in such a positive way for both the seniors and Neil,” varsity captain senior Kaelli Thiel said.
Varsity women’s tennis is on a historic streak of 207 league wins in a row, which is a California state record. That, along with the team’s consistent success during NCS, is a testament to the winning culture that the women’s program has developed over the years.
“Our team always builds a strong bond, but this year it was something really special,” Thiel said.
To Thiel, the relationship the girls created with each other was great, especially between the seniors and the freshmen on the team. The seniors, who had been with the program for a number of years, took the group of talented freshmen in and made them feel like they were part of the team. The girls would often go out to eat and have sleepovers for team bonding. Thiel said that made the team feel more like a tight knit family than anything else.
Gilliland felt that the team needed its strong bond to overcome the rigors of the NCS, since tournament hours lasted from 8:45 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., each match with the potential to last three hours. She said that it was the team’s talent, hours of practice and close friendship that allowed the team to take the NCS title.
After all the team had been through, they were still faced with the fact that this season would be their last with head coach Neil Rothenberg.
“Neil is really supportive, and he truly cares about each individual and how they grow both as a player and as a person,” Thiel said “The tennis season would not be the same without him.”
Rothenberg, who has coached at Piedmont for over 13 years, has seen this group of seniors grow into the players and people they are today and says he is proud of who they have become.
“I’m not the kind of coach who is going to throw 400 balls at you just to work on your forehand,” Rothenberg said.
Rothenberg said that he firmly believes that a coach has to lead by example. He said that he has always been about teaching players how to get in the right mindset. The psychological part of the game, such as giving oneself the confidence to perform well, is what he thinks to be one of the most important aspects of playing a match.
“You try to push the limits in the player you are facing. If they can only return five balls before their game implodes, push them to that limit,” said Rothenberg.
Looking at one’s opponent and being able to see some of their tendencies and weaknesses during a game is what Rothenberg believes to be a key part of winning.
Over the course of the season, these ideas became a part of what made this team so successful, both during the regular season and in their eventual NCS victory.
“A piece of cake,” said Rothenberg, describing what it was like to coach his final game.
Rothenberg explained that although he and the team had put in a season’s worth of practice and games in preparation for NCS, when the time came to play those final games everyone did what they were supposed to and all he need do was watch his team play.
“It’s always a joy to watch your team go out and play on their own,” Rothenberg said.
He has felt that over the years, teams have peaked and played their best tennis at the end of the season, during NCS and when it counts, and that was no different with this team. Rothenberg said that he was saddened during the final matches, knowing that his run with the team would be over after the final game ended.
“It’s the little things that are what I’m going to miss most about coaching,” Rothenberg said.
Rothenberg enjoyed practice because of the comfortable atmosphere that the team created through conversation and jokes. Assistant coach Corey Reich is another part of the team that Rothenberg will miss. Reich, who is living with ALS, has hardly ever missed a practice or a match and is a huge inspiration to everyone involved with the program.
“Corey is an amazing person and he is the life of the team,” Thiel said.
Though Rothenberg’s long and successful coaching career is coming to a close, and there will be many parts of being Piedmont’s tennis coach he will miss, Rothenberg is proud of what he and the program have achieved together.
When both he and Kaelli Thiel were asked what this final season felt like, their response was the same, “It’s bittersweet.”