CHARLOTTE – The South Meck girls tennis regular season ends on Oct. 1, but second-year Sabres coach Susie Porter knows she’ll need to be her biggest cheerleader on Oct. 26.
That’s the date of this year’s NCHSAA individual championship, and Porter has already planned it out in her head.
“We’re going to try to bring a big group up there with her this season because it is a great accomplishment and something she has a real shot of doing,” Porter said.
The “her” Porter refers to is senior Jenna Thompson, the Sabres No. 1 player. In three years on the team, she’s single-handedly helped put a once proud tennis program back on the map.
Until Thompson arrived on campus, South Meck had experienced little success on the tennis court since the mid-1980s, when the Sabres secured three team state titles and won the doubles championship in 1985.
But Thompson has changed that in a big way.
Since she was little, Thompson has always stood out on the court. But since her freshman she has re-written the history and changed the fortunes of the program for the better.
Thompson, who is 1-0 this season in both singles and doubles, helped the Sabres open the season with a 5-4 win over Providence, a team they haven’t beat in over two years.
But it was a special win for Thompson, too, as she extended her unbeaten streak into her fourth season.
Thompson has won each of the past three 4A singles titles, a feat only accomplished by four other girls – Laura Cowman (Charlotte Catholic, 1989-92), Julianne Treme (Salisbury, 1993-96), Jackie Houston (Kings Mountain, 1993-96) and Britney Cloer (Brevard, 2003-06).
“I’m a little nervous, but I think I’m excited about this year, too,” she said. “It’s my senior year, my last shot at it and I know where I’m going, so that makes me happy. But I want to win for sure.”
Before she had played a single varsity match, Thompson was already a prodigy, ranked No.1 in the state as a 14-year-old. She was also well known in the ATP and USTA circuits, but ready to make a name for herself.
“I was really nervous and I had no idea what to expect when I got to high school tennis,” she said. “But I was excited to play for my school and represent them.”
Thompson has been nothing short of brilliant in her three seasons since stepping on the court, but it is her desire to want to play for the Sabres in the first place that shows a rare level of devotion, and especially for a player of Thompson’s caliber.
High school tennis is a sport that elite players spend at least three to four hours of practice – mostly individual or one-on-one with a trainer. Maybe more. Therefore it is very common for the top tennis players in the country to choose the homeschooled route where they can devote even more time to training.
And Thompson is definitely an elite player. Tennisrecruiting.net ranks her as a blue chip, 5-star recruit. The three-time state champ is the No. 1-ranked player in North Carolina, the No. 7-ranked player in the Southeast and the No. 23 player in the country in the Class of 2020.
She even tried homeschooling, but it wasn’t for her.
“The reason I played is because I wanted to represent my school,” she said “But I also feel like being in school is more real life. Some of the higher-level players are homeschooled, and I just don’t feel like that was for me. In college, I’m going to have to go to school and practice. I come to school every day, play here and then I have my own practice so it’s busy but I love it.
“High school tennis is fun and this year my sister (freshman Hannah) is on the team. Travel tennis is so individual, so the team part is fun when people cheer for me and stuff.”
Thompson has made the circuits and this season was one of just seven girls selected from nine southern states to play in California’s Fed Ex Cup in July.
With Thompson playing Line 2 and doubles wherever she was needed, her southern team won the whole thing.
While Thompson is obviously a star, her unbeaten high school streak – a feat that may have never been duplicated – was not without challenges.
In last year’s state finals, Thompson found herself down a set and trailing 4-1 to Sanderson’s Sibel Tanik, an East Carolina commit Thompson had played and beaten several times before.
“When she was down 1-4 in the second set she started to turn it around, but before that she was at a place where she had to reconcile with herself and deal with a little frustration,” Porter recalled. “There were woods back behind her and she looked out into the woods by herself. Her opponent was from Raleigh and had a lot of support, so that was some of it, too, but whatever she did over there worked because she turned around and started playing and was at a different place mentally and took over.”
Thompson rebounded to win five consecutive games to take the second set 6-4 and she won the decisive set 6-2.
“I’ve played for so long that I’m sort of used to the pressure. I deal with it in my own way. I’m kind of quiet when I play, unless I get mad,” she said. “I just tried to focus on playing my game and not putting pressure on myself.”
Thompson, who is a 4.0 student and said she likes to anonymously blend into the crowded South Meck hallways instead of act like the superstar she is, has found happiness, too.
She signed with Clemson, choosing the Tigers over finalist Wake Forest and the long list of others so intrigued by her skill and potential.
“I liked the family feel. I felt at home there,” she said. “I loved the coach and I loved the girls there. It was a good fit for me.”
Before Thompson begins her next chapter, she has to close the one that includes her senior season. Thompson and Porter are hoping for the storybook ending, but time will tell.
“She very encouraging to everyone and just a great person,” Porter said. “She really plays the leadership role well. We have her say a few words of encouragement in the beginning and will help with advice like what to do when the score is tight, how do you handle being down and just giving strategies to them that they can try. She’s a great teammate and is very supportive.”
Thompson said she hopes people will be inspired by her accomplishments, but she wants to end her South Meck career on a high note.
“It would be really cool to win it,” she said. “’ll give my plaques back to South Meck, though. I don’t need them and they’ve already put the other three in the trophy case and that is perfect with me. It makes me happy and it makes the school happy because they get recognition from it also. That’s what I like most about playing for my school.”