Decade of dominance: Kelly girls tennis had remarkable run from 1990-99

Kevin Mays • Apr 29, 2020 at 1:00 PM

WISE — Tennis was at the height of popularity in Southwest Virginia in the 1990s.

It was also at the height of its success in the middle of Wise County.

From 1990-99, girls tennis at now-closed J.J. Kelly reached the VHSL Group A championship match 10 years in a row. And from 1991-97, the team brought back seven consecutive titles.

“It was a great time and we had some great players,” said Janet Nelson, the Lady Indians’ coach from 1993 to 2001, a span in which they won five state championships. “There was a lot going on in tennis then. There were a lot of camps and we just had several kids interested in tennis.”


J.J. Kelly was a power program from a power district in the Group A girls tennis ranks.

The Lonesome Pine District was known primarily for its powerful football and baseball programs in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. But some girls tennis powerhouses also arose from the LPD.

Coeburn reached the state title match in 1977 and Clintwood made the state finals in 1980.

J.J. Kelly, led by state singles champion Carol Saboites, made its first appearance in the state finals in 1983. The Lady Indians returned to the state championship in 1985.

But no LPD team won the state championship in girls tennis until 1986 when the Brenda Ward-coached Kelly squad defeated Independence 5-4 for the title.

Ward directed the Lady Indians back to the state finals in 1990, but they fell 5-4 to Grayson County.

Then in 1991, Kelly found its magic.


The Lady Indians defeated Stuarts Draft 6-3 in the state final for its second Group A title — the start of a string of seven straight.

After coaching Kelly to that championship in 1992, Ward resigned and Nelson, the program’s junior varsity and assistant coach, took charge of the varsity team.

“We had so many good players and good athletes over the years,” Nelson said. “It was so competitive. Everyone just worked so hard and really competed with each other in every practice.

“I remember Amanda Meade Mullins and how hard she worked to get a spot on the team. She was happy to get into the top six because it was so competitive among the players.”

Leslie Roberts, Bobbi McAmis, Marnie Mullins, Kelly Dorsey, Kristen Dotson, Dera Leigh Wood, Ashley Pangle Chandler and others became household names in Virginia high school tennis as J.J. Kelly won championship after championship.


While there were many players that powered Kelly during its state title stretch, the one that stands out the most is Natasha Belcher Holt.

Holt won a Lady Indians tennis record eight state titles: four team championships and three singles crowns (1993-95), and she teamed with Dorsey for the 1995 doubles championship.

“Natasha and Kelly won the first state doubles title in school history and Natasha won three straight singles titles,” Nelson noted.


During its dominating run, one of Kelly’s strongest opponents was located a mere 5 miles away.

“J.I. Burton was always tough during that time,” Nelson of the LPD school. “Geri Lynn Wallace was coach there then and they were just always a tough team to beat. We had some of our best matches with them.

“We knew if we beat Burton, we had a good chance of making it to state.”

Kelly girls tennis stayed strong throughout the remainder of its days.

After winning seven straight titles, the Lady Indians made it back to the state finals in 1998 and ’99 but lost to Radford both years. The following decade, Radford and Gate City began their dominance.

J.J. Kelly did make its return to the state finals in 2011, the final spring before consolidation with Pound formed Wise Central. The Lady Indians fell to East Rockingham 5-2.

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