WATERLOO — Brianne Eighme couldn’t help but feel a little overwhelmed.
A newcomer to the sport of tennis, Eighme wasn’t quite sure what to expect when she accompanied long-time friend Karlee Sinnott to Byrnes Park for an open hitting session the summer prior to her freshman year of high school. Scanning the courts filled with members of the state’s most successful program, the lanky volleyball player initially wasn’t sure she belonged.
Yet, Waterloo Columbus’ veteran coach Dave Will was impressed with her size and ability to learn.
“I was absolutely horrible and Mr. Will seemed to see potential,” Eighme recalled. “I told my dad about it and he was like, ‘OK, you can just keep going. See if you improve.’”
Flash forward a year. A Waterloo Columbus team with three freshmen in its lineup faced a 4-2 deficit to Red Oak in the finals of the Class 1A state team tournament.
Newcomer Lauren McManus and her older sister, Lindsay, helped shift momentum with a win in the No. 1 doubles match, and upperclassmen Gabby Greco and Maggie Weber won at No. 2.
Suddenly, all the attention was on Eighme and Sinnott with the team score tied 4-4 and their No. 3 doubles match the only contest still unsettled. Through pressure, a competitive side came to light from the freshmen as they held on for a second-set tiebreak victory to clinch their first state championship.
“I didn’t really understand how much pressure was on that game until afterwards,” Eighme recalls. “I was just like, ‘Wow, if we would have lost that, that would have cost us the title.’ But then, it’s like, ‘How did I even get here?’
“It was crazy coming from never playing before to being on such a great team and being successful.”
To this day, Sinnott says that’s as intense of a match she’s ever played.
“I wanted to pull it out for my team because I knew they were counting on us and I wanted to be able to hold up to the expectations,” Sinnott recalls.
This weekend, Eighme, Sinnott and Lauren McManus will attempt to cap their careers with four state championships as Columbus returns to the University of Iowa Tennis Center for the first time since that venue hosted their memorable 2014 win over Red Oak.
Columbus has dominated 1A’s team tournament the previous two seasons, clinching the 2015 and 2016 championships with five singles victories preventing the need for doubles teams to even take the court. Senior Franny Roche worked her way into the lineup for the three most recent championships, while defending state singles champion Olivia Fain has occupied the top singles spot in the lineup on the past two title runs. Taylor Hogan won a state doubles championship as a freshman alongside McManus a year ago, defeating Eighme and Sinnott in the finals at Byrnes Park.
No other Iowa high school girls’ sports team has won as many as Columbus’ 18 championships. A pair of wins Saturday would mark the first time the Sailors have ever won five consecutive team titles.
“This is probably one of the strongest teams we’ve ever had,” Will said. “Olivia, she’s a big-time tennis player. She’s one of the best ever to come out of Waterloo, and Taylor is just an outstanding athlete with her gymnastic background.
“Throw them with the four seniors, and along with Anna Sinnott, a junior, we’re pretty doggone good. I wouldn’t want to have to play us. “
State tournament action begins Thursday with the individual doubles and singles tournaments. McManus and Hogan are the top seed in the doubles draw, while Fain has earned the top singles seed.
“It’s very special,” McManus said, looking forward her final state tournament. “I think it’s awesome that we’re all best friends and have great coaches. I’m super excited to have the opportunity that we have.”
While few coaches have experienced as much success as Will and his long-time assistant Chuck Schupbach, the Columbus head coach won’t take credit for one key trait his team exudes.
“I don’t think you can teach competitiveness,” Will said. “You’re born with that or your parents install it within you. It’s not so much as you love to win, as you hate to lose.”
Columbus’ lone team loss this season was by a 5-4 margin to Dubuque Wahlert without Fain in the lineup. As a result, the Sailors are seeded No. 2 entering Saturday’s 9 a.m. semifinal against Waverly-Shell Rock.
“Losing, we’re not very fond of it,” Eighme said. “Luckily it doesn’t happen very often. We have lost once this season and that made us tune in and realize this is our last season for four of us. We would love to just be done with losing for the year, and take home that last title and be successful for the last time.”
GO-HAWKS BACK WITH A VENGEANCE: Two years removed from a program-best third place finish, Waverly-Shell Rock has reached the 1A team semifinals without losing a single match during regional play.
Chelsea Poesch, a 2015 state doubles champion, is paired with Madi Overmann as the No. 2 seed in the doubles tournament.
Decorah’s Kally Peterson is unseeded in the 1A singles bracket after winning a district title, while the Vikings’ Anna Spencer and Corrina Yee are competing in the doubles draw.
KEERAN MAKES DEBUT: Cedar Falls freshman Krisha Keeran has qualified for the Class 2A state singles tournament in Ankeny following her runner-up regional finish. Keeran will face No. 4 seed Cari Naanep of Johnston in the first round.