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May 21, 2011

PREP TENNIS: Tornado motivates Bearcats to bring home state crown

CULLMAN — Cullman High’s girls tennis team was determined to bring back a bit of hope for the tornado-ravaged town.

Playing in the Class 5A state tournament on April 28-29, the Bearcats did just that, winning the second state championship in school history.

“We used it as an incentive, to bring something good back,” Hannah Cornelius said. “We figured it would be a chance to hopefully brighten someone’s day (by winning).”

The teams left that fateful Wednesday morning, having been delayed by the first round of storms.

Upon reaching Montgomery, the Bearcats went straight to Lagoon Park, the site of the championships, for a practice session.

When they got to their hotel, the television news brought it home to them.

“I turned on CNN to see what they were saying about President Obama’s birth certificate,” coach Nathan Bates said. “They broke in and started talking about Cullman, showing actual footage of a huge tornado.”

While Bates was checking the news, the teams were in their rooms, getting ready to go to the theatre.

By the time they gathered for the trip, rumors were already flying, because of television reports and cell phone usage.

“It was really tough because we weren’t sure what was rumor and what wasn’t,” Natalie Sharpton said. “The coaches and parents really helped keep us settled down.

“I think it helped us that we weren’t watching it on TV, seeing how bad the damage was.”

Everyone took time to call their families and make sure everyone was safe, then Bates asked them to turn off their phones, to keep the rumors to a minimum.

“I was really freaking out,” Alison Howell said. “My sister, Anna, is pregnant and I couldn’t get her or my dad to answer their phones. When I finally reached Anna and found out everyone was OK, I felt so much more at ease.”

At the theatre, Bates was the only one to keep his phone turned on, as he hadn’t yet heard from some of his family.

He and some of the parents went back to the hotel, leaving assistant coaches in charge of the teams. There, they discussed strategy on how to deal with the information.

“We decided to keep as much of it as possible away from the kids,” Bates said. “We mainly didn’t want to dwell on it, as there wasn’t anything we could do to help except pray for Cullman, which we did at every opportunity.

“Some of the parents came back to Cullman but the teams were unified that they were going to stay and play.”

When Thursday arrived, the girls had the mindset that they were going to do something good for Cullman.

Bates had used the highway sign with state championships won on it for motivation.

“I told them that it was possible that sign had been blown away,” he said. “And that when it was replaced, it could have “2011 tennis” added to the list.”

The boys didn’t manage a state title but the girls worked their way to a co-state championship, tying with Muscle Shoals.

“By the time we got on the courts, we had the mindset to just play tennis,” Howell said.

Howell, playing No. 1 singles, made it to the finals before losing to Mary Angela Martin of St. Paul’s. Martin is one of the most highly-recruited players in the state, currently having over 20 scholarship offers.

But Howell had the distinction of being the only girl to win a game over Martin. In fact, Martin won 6-3, 6-1 after sweeping through the rest of the bracket by 6-0, 6-0 scores.

Sharpton and Cornelius, at Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, also reached the finals. Katie Sharpton, Natalie’s twin sister, got to the quarterfinals at No. 4.

At No. 6, McKenzie Bussman won an individual state crown.

She also teamed up with Natalie Sharpton to win state at No. 3 doubles.

Howell and Cornelius reached the finals at No. 1 doubles and Katie Sharpton-Morgan got to the quarterfinals at No. 2 doubles.

“The girls were almost robotic they were playing so well,” Bates said. “It was like nothing was going to get in their way that week.”

Even with only two individual state champions, having that many to reach the later rounds helped Cullman achieve its goal, as each win awards points to a team.

And after bringing that ray of hope to Cullman, the teams returned and immediately started helping with the cleanup effort.

Stan Veitch can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 258 or at stanv@cullmantimes.com.

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