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Juniata has built tennis from ground up

MIFFLINTOWN — If I asked you to name the most successful athletic program at Juniata High School, what would your answer be?

Tennis probably wouldn’t be your first choice, but if it wasn’t, you would be dead wrong.

The Juniata boys tennis team, under the direction of Coach Sheri Landis, recently won its third consecutive District 6 Class 2A team title. It likely would have been four consecutive, but they lost a year to COVID-19.

In addition, Trey Lauver and Adam French met in the finals of the individual district tournament, resulting in a district sweep for the Indians.

What is the reason for all the recent success of the program? For Landis, the answer is simple — a solid feeder program filled with motivated kids.

“When I took over, these kids were coming in as ninth graders wanting to play tennis, but they didn’t have a tennis background and had to learn the game. There wasn’t enough time for them to learn, so we started a tennis camp six years ago,” Landis said. “We took kids from sixth through eighth grade. We worked with them, and they learned the basics by the time they got to high school. They needed to progress in their sport, and that’s the biggest reason because all those kids are now seniors.”

Landis hopes the camp will help find new standouts for next year and into the future.

“We’re going to run a camp again. Next year is going to be a rebuilding year. We lose nine seniors, but if we can get some sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders interested, we can bring them up through, and when they get to ninth grade, we’ll have kids ready to play,” Landis said.

Winning brings with it the benefits of participation. Athletes want to play for a winner. Unlike most teams across the state, Juniata has no problem getting kids to come out for tennis.

“The other schools struggle to get enough players to make a complete team. Therefore, some schools forfeited games because they didn’t have enough kids,” Landis said. “We have 20 on our team. I don’t think we met one other team that had that many. Most schools are happy if they can field a whole scoring team.”

Landis said she was lucky to find kids with the two key ingredients she looks for in a tennis player.

“Six years ago, when we had that camp, I found kids with two things — the ability and they were intrinsically motivated,” she said. “I don’t have to motivate them. They are there to get better. They work from the beginning of practice straight through to the end. They don’t whine, complain, or want to leave practice. They work hard, and they motivate each other.

“My top three guys especially set that precedent. When you have that motivation from within, that’s what makes the difference. These kids are intrinsically motivated and have the ability.”

Another aspect her players must have is a winner’s mentality. For Landis, attitude is a big part of her program’s success.

“Mental toughness and belief are extremely important. You can’t teach it. It comes only through experience, and it has to be from the experience of winning,” Landis said. “Because if you experience losing, the minute something goes wrong, your mind goes into here we go again, and you make mistakes. Winning breeds winning. It helps with their mental game. I can see that in our team over the last three years.

“When I started playing, I had someone tell me, ‘when you walk on the court, you tell yourself, I’m the best person for this job. I’m going to be the winner. You keep telling yourself that, and pretty soon, you’re going to be the winner.’ Again, you have to have the ability, but mental toughness is huge.”

Playing as many matches in the offseason is another aspect to the program’s success.

“I have one boy coming back next year, and I encouraged him to play as many matches you can with people you don’t know because that will help you become more mentally strong,” Landis said. “As you succeed, you will develop more mental toughness. He will because he has great skill.”

No one can build a winning program alone. Landis credits the kids, and the community support the team receives.

“We’ve been fortunate with the quality of players we’ve had. I want them to have fun. I want them to know I care about them,” she said. “We have an indoor tennis association at the Port Royal courts at the fairgrounds. They have been so supportive letting the kids use the facility. Even allowing them to play doubles matches in the winter with some of the adults. That helps the kids in the offseason to keep rackets in their hands even when it’s snowing outside.

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