Walton of Marietta has three top-50 players on its roster that can’t make the starting lineup for the six-time defending champions in Class AAAAA.
Seven other state-ranked players – including three that are ranked in the top 10 among high school juniors in Georgia – are the starters on a team that has won a state-record 125 matches in a row. Walton will enter region playoffs later this month hoping to run the streak to 133, which would tie Georgia’s all-sports record.
‘’They’re all so talented that it makes it difficult to put together a lineup because the majority of these girls are so equal,'' said Roberta Manheim, who is 125-0 as a girls tennis coach. "There are just so many girls at Walton that are talented.''
For those searching for reasons for Walton's success, start with location.
"It’s East Cobb,’’ said No. 3 singles player Stephanie Falcon, referring to the metro Atlanta suburb that is Georgia’s tennis mecca. "All the girls really train hard and travel around and play tournaments.’’
East Cobb is where world top-100 touring pros Robby Ginepri and Melanie Oudin grew up and learned to play tennis. Falcon lives across the street from Universal Tennis Academy, one of three major junior programs that lie within the Walton school district. The others are the Baskin Tennis Academy and the Tennis Academy of Georgia, all within five miles of Walton’s home courts.
Walton’s 12 players all trained at one of the three, and each of them is ranked in the top 50 in the state in their grade. Three of them – Emily Zabor, Maxie Weinberg and Falcon – are ranked among the top 10 high school juniors in Georgia.
The team has seven other juniors who are ranked in the top 50 in their grade in Georgia by TennisRecruiting.net, meaning each is a college prospect, even the five who won't be in the lineup in the state playoffs.
The rest of the roster includes Casey MacKintosh (ranked No. 21 among Georgia’s high school juniors), Claire Marshall (23), Kayla Brady (24), Rachel Harte (38), Marissa Pulido (40), Katie Wagasky (41) and Amelia McIssac (43). Walton has two freshmen who are in the top 50 among ninth-graders in Emily Hart (28) and Melissa Mashburn (42).
There are no seniors on this team, which means the streak has no predictable end. Walton does have a rematch remaining with rival Centennial of Roswell, a team Walton beat only 3-2 last month. So there will be some suspense.
Manheim had no idea what she was inheriting when she took the job in 2004. She was the school’s cheerleading coach and was a pretty good recreational tennis player, reaching the A-level in the famous Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association. But she didn’t follow high school tennis that closely.
‘’I didn’t know; everybody else knew,’’ Manheim said. "When I went to the coaches meeting, other coaches said, ‘Wow, wait 'til you see what you’ve got.’ I was a novice. I had no idea until tryouts. When I saw them play, I knew exactly what I had. They’re phenomenal.’’
Walton had won two of the previous three championships when Manheim took over but was not the defending champion, and no public school had ever dominated the way Walton would under Manheim.
Several of Walton’s players during the streak have gone on to play major-college tennis. They include Cameron Ellis (Georgia), Elizabeth Kilborn (Georgia Tech), Kelly Tidwell (Richmond), Emily Lauten (Virginia Tech) and Katie Kilborn (Vanderbilt).
Walton’s winning streak stands sixth all-time nationally for girls tennis. The record is 218, set by Tucson High in the 1980s, according to the "National High School Sports Record Book." Walton will move up to fifth by winning its seventh straight state title this year.
Walton’s streak also is the second-longest for any high school sports team in Georgia. A girls basketball team from Taylor County near Macon won 133 straight games from 1968 to 1972. That record would be tied if Walton wins the state title this year.
And while Manheim is the first to admit that she had no part in developing the players' talents, she set one rule that has built a team spirit that many high school tennis programs lack. She requires that the players attend all practices.
Some of Georgia’s elite junior players don’t play high school tennis because it’s discouraged by some coaches who feel they junior tournaments are more important. Many of those who do play are allowed to miss practices and show up only for matches. Zabor, Walton’s No. 1 player, says her team wouldn't be as close or as good if they were allowed to go their own way. She says Walton has a sense of pride and unity that most high school teams don't.
‘’I get a lot of adrenaline playing in high school matches because I’m not playing for myself,’’ Zabor said. "I have a high school to represent. College isn’t going to look at how I did in high school, but you have to have leadership abilities (in high school tennis), and you have to have sportsmanship. It’s not me out there. It’s my team.’’