Lebanon girls tennis continues to grow, boasts large roster

Lebanon High's Hailey Schiboula returns a shot during the Raiders' 8-1 defeat of Kearsarge during the NHIAA Division III teams' season opener on April 2, 2024, at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission.

Lebanon High's Hailey Schiboula returns a shot during the Raiders' 8-1 defeat of Kearsarge during the NHIAA Division III teams' season opener on April 2, 2024, at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Valley News photographs — Tris Wykes

Hannah Rich, right, awaits a serve by doubles partner Mari Utell during the Raiders' 8-1, season-opening defeat of visiting Kearsarge on April 2, 2024, at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission.

Hannah Rich, right, awaits a serve by doubles partner Mari Utell during the Raiders' 8-1, season-opening defeat of visiting Kearsarge on April 2, 2024, at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. —Tris Wykes

Lebanon High girls tennis coach Rob Johnstone, left, speaks with Kearsarge counterpart Bob

Lebanon High girls tennis coach Rob Johnstone, left, speaks with Kearsarge counterpart Bob "Bubba" Williams during their NHIAA Division III teams' season opener on April 2, 2024, at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. —Tris Wykes

Lebanon High's Amalia Mladek returns a serve during the Raiders' 8-1 defeat of visiting Kearsarge during the NHIAA Division III teams' season opener on April 2, 2024, at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission.

Lebanon High's Amalia Mladek returns a serve during the Raiders' 8-1 defeat of visiting Kearsarge during the NHIAA Division III teams' season opener on April 2, 2024, at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. —Tris Wykes

Lebanon High's Adaa Krawall hits a shot during the Raiders' 8-1 defeat of visiting Kearsarge on April 2, 2024, at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt. It was the NHIAA Division III teams' season opener. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission.

Lebanon High's Adaa Krawall hits a shot during the Raiders' 8-1 defeat of visiting Kearsarge on April 2, 2024, at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction, Vt. It was the NHIAA Division III teams' season opener. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. —Tris Wykes

BY TRIS WYKES

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 04-03-2024 5:46 PM

Modified: 04-04-2024 10:15 AM


WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — It was little less than a year ago that the Lebanon High girls tennis team had to comb its building’s 70-year-old hallways for enough competitors to keep its upcoming season alive.

Tuesday, the Raiders, boasting their largest roster in years, defeated visiting Kearsarge, 8-1, during the NHIAA Division III teams’ season opener.

Singles victories came from Hailey Schiboula, playing at No. 2, along with Hannah Rich (No. 3), Mari Utell (No. 4), Laura Hines (No. 5) and Amalia Mladek (No. 6).

The doubles pairings of Adaa Karanwall-Schiboula, Rich-Utell and Norah Falcone-Payton Breedlove all won as well. Kearsarge’s Tori Montagna won at No. 1 singles, but the Cougars came no closer than an 8-4 loss elsewhere.

Lebanon coach Rob Johnstone, who doubles as the school’s longtime and highly successful boys soccer coach, said seeing his players laugh and smile was rewarding after a preseason spent on indoor courts.

“We won today, and they’re happy,” Johnstone said. “But even last year, we didn’t win all the time and they were still happy. It’s good perspective for me, because during soccer season I’m staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m.”

Johnstone helped revive the girls tennis program in 2017 after a lack of players caused the 2016 campaign to be canceled. A winless season followed but the Raiders reached the playoffs by 2019, only to lose another season in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnstone spent the spring of 2022 in Dubai and that season was also canceled, again because of a small turnout. With Johnstone back in the saddle for his fifth season, however, a late recruitment drive based primarily on word of mouth brought roughly a dozen players out last spring.

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Lebanon was good enough to host a first-round playoff match despite only its top two players having had previous varsity experience.

“We had such a fun atmosphere last year, and the girls showed so much improvement that this year we have 16 players,” said Johnstone, noting that the Raiders now have eight returnees. “If you’re athletic and you have a good engine, you can be successful pretty quickly in high school tennis here.”

Kearsarge is rebuilding after winning the 2022 division title, but Montagna was dominant in the top position Tuesday. Johnstone nonetheless credited Karanwall with some excellent swings, noting that the senior can mix a power game with drop shots and impressive spin.

“She serves harder than I do, and I’m not afraid to admit it,” the coach said with a laugh. “It’s good for our other players to see that there’s more than just one way to hit a ball.”

Schiboula is a former Florida resident who dropped the sport after stints during second and seventh grade in the Sunshine State. She and Utell enjoyed gym-class pickleball and decided they’d go out for tennis last spring.

“It started as a joke,” said the former competitive gymnast, who stands out for hitting the ball as hard as she possible can on many of her shots. “Playing was a last-minute decision last year, and now it’s the only sport I do. My confidence has really improved.”

At roughly 6 feet, Rich was noticeable Tuesday for her wingspan and aggressive demeanor at the net in doubles, where she repeatedly cut off Cougar shots. Hines is the sister of Lebanon boys tennis standout Kyle Hines and a softball refugee, and Mladek is a cross country runner and Nordic skier with an effective jump serve.

“I love my team,” Schiboula said. “Our mindset is becoming much better. Getting in your own head is easy in tennis and that’s usually why we lose, not because we’re worse than the other players.”

Johnstone, whose day job is teaching English at Windsor High, works to make practices active and fun and tries to focus on general form as opposed to a thousand tiny details. With the aid of three assistant coaches, the aim of most workouts is get rackets on balls at a nearly nonstop pace.

“Reps, reps, reps,” Johnstone said. “Girls who are brand new to the sport can come out of a practice having hit 120 times, and that’s how you get better. It’s so rapid-fire than nobody is worrying about whether they look bad or not.

“It’s fun, but it can still be fun while trying your hardest to win.”

The event took place at the Maxfield Sports Complex because Lebanon’s previous home courts at the CCBA’s Witherell Recreation Center have fallen into disrepair and are not currently scheduled for replacement. That leaves Lebanon with only two public courts — worn surfaces at the former Seminary Hill School.

“The high cost of repairing the cracking and foundation issues were evaluated in our comprehensive facilities review last fall,” wrote CCBA director Kerry Altman in an email. “We are still assessing our next steps for the campus as a whole.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.