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Gate City's 10-time state champion girls tennis program a Devil of a dynasty

Kevin Mays • Apr 28, 2020 at 1:00 PM

GATE CITY — Gate City owns 27 state championships in team sports.

The school’s girls tennis program boasts 10 of them — a number that ranks Gate City second in Virginia for most titles in state history and first among schools west of Richmond.

In a word, Gate City girls tennis can be described as a dynasty.

DOMINATING THE 21st CENTURY

“We had a great team and great camaraderie among the players,” said former Lady Blue Devils coach Jenny Gardner, who led the program for 15 years before leaving in 2007.

Gate City gained prominence on the tennis scene right around the turn of the century.

The Lady Blue Devils made their first trip to the state championship in 1993 and a second in 1996, losing both times. In 2002, they advanced to the state championship match, dropping a 6-0 decision to Radford.

The next year, however, the Lady Blue Devils began a dominant run through the state that earned them five consecutive VHSL titles.

They took down traditional tennis powers George Mason (2003 and 2006), Radford (2005 and 2007) and Galax (2004) during that stretch.

“We had girls that just didn’t give up,” Gardner said, looking back at those championship years. “It was a lot of fun. I wanted to win as much as anybody, but I also told the girls that more than anything I wanted them to have fun and have memories that they could look back on.”

From 2003-07, Gate City lost one match: a 5-4 decision against Class 3 Abingdon.

THE DOMINATOR

Gate City’s most dominant player ruled the high school court from 2004-07.

Tara Sheets Chadwell, who played four years at East Tennessee State after graduating from Gate City in 2007, won 11 state championships — four as part of a team, four in doubles and three in singles — while playing for the Lady Blue Devils.

Chadwell lost only one contest in her high school career. During her freshman season, Chadwell fell to Radford’s Ashton Downs 7-6(7-4), 6-2 in VHSL singles competition.

The loss became one of her biggest learning experiences, Chadwell said.

“It was hard losing,” she said. “It was a really great lesson for me and made me more determined. That helped set the path for me in tennis.”

Chadwell won over 100 matches at Gate City.

“I’ve been playing tennis my entire life,” she said. “My dad ran the parks and recreation park in Gate City and he helped get tennis started. He and Jenny Gardner and (current coach) Delonda Spivey have been great assets for tennis in Gate City.

“They were just great in building the program.”

THE NEXT FIVE

Gate City carried on its tradition of being a state tennis power through last season.

Since 2008, when Spivey took over the program, Gate City has won five more state championships — in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016 — and has reached the VHSL tournament every year except one.

“We’ve had a lot of talented players,” Spivey said. “They’ve been very talented and get where they get by dedication and hard work.”

Spivey, a Gate City alum, played three sports in high school, but not tennis. But after playing at Lincoln Memorial, “I fell in love with the game,” she said, and she passes that love on to her team each year.

She said one of her personal highlights was coaching her daughters, Hannah and Hope, on the same team when Gate City won the 2015 state crown.

“Family is very important and that’s part of Gate City,” Spivey said. “It’s a close-knit community and it’s about family.

“That’s the thing I’m most proud of about my teams. It’s nice to win, but it’s worth more than that.”

MISSING THE GAME

With the nucleus back from last year’s state runner-up team, Gate City had a shot at winning its 11th VHSL championship this spring. The Lady Blue Devils never got a chance to play, however, after the cancellation of the spring seasons because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is tough,” Spivey said. “We had one senior (Kaley Jenkins) and a solid team coming back. We were tough 1 through 6.

“It’s heartbreaking to know how we could have finished. I believe this would have been a very good year for us.”

Chadwell sympathizes with the players.

“I knew when my last match was going to be and I remember like it was yesterday,” she said. “I can’t imagine knowing you’re not going to have the chance to experience that. It’s just heartbreaking.”

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