PFLUGERVILLE – Hendrickson tennis coach Teri Saunders has a simple – and sweet – reason why the Hawks’ program has quickly emerged as a force in her two seasons at the school.
“It’s all about the donuts,” she said after a recent tennis practice at Hendrickson High School, where she was prepping the girls doubles team of Idara Udiok and Bella Reusch for this week’s UIL state tennis tournament.
Saunders laughed, thinking about some of her tasty lures she uses to attract Hendrickson’s students to the school’s tennis courts. But her methods of growing the program have had serious results; After years of serving as little more than a physical education credit, Hendrickson’s tennis program has fled to make a statewide impact.
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When Udiok and Reusch take the court Tuesday at San Antonio’s Northside Tennis Center for a Class 5A quarterfinal match, they’ll become the latest members of the team to make history. Hendrickson had never won a team tennis district title before the Hawks captured the District 18-5A title in October, and the school had never had any player – boy or girl – compete in a spring state meet.
Such success is particularly, well, sweet for Saunders, who could not even field a complete team when she arrived on campus prior to the 2020-21 school year.
“That was the first thing on my agenda,” she said, referring to the Hawks’ limited roster. “I don’t care if they (Hendrickson’s students) never picked up a tennis racket. I just need to fill my roster. ”
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And that’s when Saunders – the daughter of legendary tennis coach John Wilkerson and a former all-conference player at UTEP who has worked at vaunted prep programs at Lake Travis and Georgetown as well as at Prairie View A&M University – became as much a blue-chip recruit as a coach. She spent almost every day at Hendrickson’s field house during the school’s summer conditioning program, championing her sport and building relationships with her co-workers and the student-athletes. And when school started for the fall semester, Saunders would include the donuts alongside the drop shots and slices of pizza with the slice serves.
“All the kids that come to strength camp, I’d talk to,” she said. “Usually, as coaches, its mandatory to do two weeks (at Hendrickson’s strength and conditioning camp). I was here every single day building relationships with the kids and the coaches. I was telling the coaches, ‘Anyone you cut from your team, bring them over to tennis. I don’t care if they have any experience. I’m taking everyone; I’m not cutting. ‘ That was how we were able to build our team.
“And the food helped. Kids would say ‘Can I have a donut? Or, can I have some pizza? ‘ I’d say, ‘Sure, but you have to come get it on the tennis court.’ “
Less than two years later, Hendrickson’s tennis program has 55 athletes and some sparkling new awards in the school’s crowded trophy cases.
“Teri genuinely cares about the student body, especially the athletes,” said Norma Sierra, Hendrickson’s girls basketball coach and the campus athletic coordinator for girls sports. “Students are smart and see the authenticity in her actions. She has been a gem and a great model of what we are trying to achieve at Hendrickson. ”
Udiok, a senior, joined Hendrickson’s tennis team her sophomore season. When Saunders arrives on campus, Udiok noticed an immediate shift in the vibe of the class.
“I thought Coach was really energetic,” Udiok said. “She was talkative and very helpful. Everyone just got more excited about tennis; we have so many more kids playing now. ”
Reusch, a junior exchange student from near the northern German city of Hanover, agreed with her doubles partner. When she arrived in the US, Reusch said she “knew that if I had the chance, I wanted to be on the high school team.” Saunders spent more than helpful, both on the tennis court and the school’s hallways.
“I like Coach,” Reusch said. “She does so much for us. She’s always happy and in a good mood. “
Having more kids means having more options for Saunders, who paired Udiok and Reusch – two players used to singles competition – with the hopes of reaching state.
Udiok qualified for regionals last season in singles play and has a natural feel at the net that translates well to doubles play, Saunders said. Reusch, who has plenty of experience playing in singles competition for her club in Germany, could not join the team until the district team tennis tournament in the fall because of UIL logistics. When she gained eligibility, Hendrickson gained a steady player as comfortable on the baseline as at the net.
“I thought they could be the dynamic duo, and it fell into place,” Saunders said. “It’s been lights-out ever since. They’re both really good at the net, and both are extremely consistent. They complement each other because their styles are so similar.
“Bella brings that high energy, and Idara brings that let’s-just-take-care-of-business mentality. It’s beautiful to watch them play. They’re like the Doublemint twins, but just the ebony and ivory version. ”