After graduating four of his top six players from last year's New Mexico 4A state championship winning team,
girls tennis coach Pat McGrath heard the whispers.
"At the end of last year, there were a lot of folks who said our run was over," McGrath said. "They said we would be in trouble."
All the talk of Farmington's potential demise has turned out to be a bunch of hullabaloo. The Scorpions (21-0), the four-time defending 4A state champions, find themselves in a familiar position with the state tournament looming on the horizon: undefeated and poised for another championship run.
Farmington hasn't lost to an in-state opponent since the 2008 state finals, a streak of 125 matches and counting. In what may have been a preview of the state title match, the Scorpions edged Los Alamos, 5-4, in the championship match of the Albuquerque Academy Invitational on April 13.
The win proved vital on many fronts, as it may have locked up the top seed for Farmington in the upcoming state tournament. That means powerhouse teams Los Alamos and Albuquerque Academy would likely have to duke it out in one semifinal, while Farmington in all probability would have a much easier time with the No. 4 seed in the other semifinal.
"That's what happened in the state finals in the last three years (in beating Albuquerque Academy for the championship)," McGrath said. "We're done with our (semifinal) match three or four hours before theirs, and that's a huge difference."
Despite losing a number of standout players from last year's squad, the Scorpions haven't suffered a dropoff — they simply reloaded. However, not even McGrath saw 21-0 coming.
"I thought we might have been hit with a loss in the Academy tournament," McGrath said. "I still think Academy has the strongest team, but they didn't have their No. 3 (singles player) that day, and they got beat by Los Alamos. We ended up getting by Los Alamos, and it was a great showing by our girls. I knew we had some talented girls coming up, but they're playing better than I thought they would. They're surprising a lot of folks."
Led by senior Molly Merrion
and sophomore Danielle Nguyen
— the two have battled for the No. 1 singles position all season — Farmington is on a serious mission for its drive to five state titles. Other top players include Allie Linville
at No. 3, Liza Briody-Pavlik
at No. 4, Sydney Schumacher
at No. 5 and Riley Coleman
at No. 6.
Merrion and Nguyen team up to form the top doubles team, Linville and Schumacher follow at the two slot and Briody-Pavlik and Coleman the three. Only Merrion and Nguyen played full-time on the varsity team last year, and the girls lead the team in different ways.
Nguyen epitomizes the team's mental and physical toughness, which was on display in the victory over Los Alamos in the Albuquerque Academy Invitational. Despite losing her singles match at the No. 2 position, Nguyen drew raves from McGrath for simply showing up and playing.
The reason? Nguyen had been battling an ankle injury during the tournament, and even though she lost her match, Farmington benefited because it could roll out its original lineup.
While Nguyen leads strictly by example, Merrion tends to be more vocal. A varsity player since the eighth grade, Merrion comes from a tennis family, as three of her older cousins all played at Farmington. Merrion also got to play on the team with her older sister, Hannah, who graduated two years ago.
"I saw early on how the upperclassmen led the team," Merrion said. "Since I'm a senior now, it's my turn to set the example."
It's that type of mentality that permeates the Farmington tennis program, which actually started its current consecutive wins streak after losing in the 2008 state final to Los Alamos, 6-3.
"That was probably one of the worst bus drives home because we thought we let one escape," McGrath said. "We had never won a state title, so that one stung quite a bit. Plus, we had been the state runner-up three or four times before, so for a while there we were always the bridesmaid and a good sparring partner."
So how does one account for Farmington's success? It comes down to talent, coaching and practice. The girls practice with the school's boys team, so they're always going up against better competition. Also, there's tremendous stability at the top, as McGrath took over the program in 1994, while boys coach Larry Larson is in his 37th year at Farmington.
"One of the most important reasons for our success is definitely our coach," Merrion said. "He always makes sure we have time to hit and practice year-round. He can be a little bit hard on us, but it only makes us stronger."
Indeed, practices are often difficult, if not brutal. There's a good reason for that: McGrath graduated from Indiana, where he was able to watch former legendary Hoosiers basketball coach Bobby Knight conduct practices.
"Coach Knight always wanted to make practices harder than the game, and that's always been my philosophy," McGrath said. "We try to make practices as hard as possible, so when they play a match, they're able to breathe a little deeper."
The breaths sure come easier now.