Out of politeness, Crofton waited to celebrate history.
The Cardinals’ final opponent double-faulted. In tennis, it’s considered bad form to cheer in those moments.
“But as soon as the dust settled, they all sprinted onto the court toward Ella [Webster], surrounded her and gave her a nice big hug,” coach Andy Little said.
Webster’s points sealed Crofton’s first tennis region championship Thursday, a 7-6, 5-7, 10-3 finish in the girls singles final over Zora Chatham of Oxon Hill. Her final addition to the Cardinals’ 10-point haul made Crofton the kings and queens of Class 3A South Region II, just two years into the program’s varsity existence.
The team has a mental strength, built in part from the worst day on Crofton’s court.
Little and his assistant coach, Jim Sinnott, were guiding the first day of tryouts. Sinnott, who has stage-four pancreatic cancer, had a heart attack. Little performed CPR for nearly five minutes to preserve Sinnott’s life before paramedics arrived.
“It was obviously surreal in so many ways. The entire reason I’m a coach is because Jim invited me one day to come play tennis with him,” Little said. “When I first started dating his daughter, I fell in love with tennis. We went to tournaments together, play together. It was really hard, and hard for the kids as teenagers to see a near-death experience.”
Little doesn’t know who called 9-1-1 immediately — because they won’t admit to it.
The athletes weren’t supposed to have their phones with them during practice. Even now, the quick-thinker still won’t own up, even after they ran to alert athletic director Jeff Martin and a nearby track and field coach. While Sinnott didn’t return to the sidelines, he successfully underwent quadruple bypass surgery and is in recovery, according to Little.
“Whoever it was,” Little said, “I’m so grateful for that.”
Three of the tennis players, Sophie Cox, Lily Haseltine and Sam Biddle, made a plan: to start an initiative in which every high school in Anne Arundel sends representatives from each sport to be trained in CPR and automated external defibrillator training. On May 16, two days before the region championships, the whole Crofton team partnered with its local fire department to learn those skills.
While Little wishes calamity hadn’t brought on that initiative, he’s glad something good came of it. The coach never wanted to simply teach his players how to swing a tennis racket.
“My message from day one was for them to be great humans first, fantastic students second and competitive athletes third. For us to have that message and then come to fruition is what I really care about with this program,” Little said.
Last year, the tennis team finished with the highest grade-point average of any team at Crofton. In a few weeks, it’ll find out if it repeated again. Little feels there’s a good chance they did.
“Those things mattered to us most,” he said. “The regional championship was the cherry on top.”
The school opened in 2020, and for the most part, the tennis players were as fresh as the building. Little and his staff knew they had work to do.
“It wasn’t like we came in and everyone was Roger [Federer] or Serena [Williams]. The kids worked tirelessly to just push each other every day,” Little said. “They were incredibly receptive to everything we had to do as coaches. There was so much eagerness from day one to have fun. And that really opened the door.”
Crofton battled Arundel so many times through the past two springs that when it came down to the Cardinals and Wildcats for the region crown, it surprised no one. The two budding rivals matched closely in the past, as Arundel added a crop of freshmen the same time Crofton started up. It was lucky, Little added, Crofton hosted the tourney, as the bleachers filled with Cardinal-red fans to pump their tennis players full of energy. The coach knew, going into Webster’s match, that a loss would make them co-champions with Arundel. No one in red wanted that.
“I had a lot of confidence they’d figure it out with Arundel,” Little said.
It came down to their minds more than their rackets. Little seeded confidence and mental strength in his newbie players last spring. Like planted strawberries, they bloomed for the first time after a year. The Cardinals surpassed new milestones, beating South River for the first time on April 12, 6-3.
“In close matches last year, there would be moments where a few points broke the other way and you could see the game getting away from them and we wouldn’t get the win. That was in the mind of so many current juniors,” Little said. “For them to go through that, they had the mental fortitude to overcome — not let the moment get to them.”