Kivett, Bengals boys tennis eager for 2021

BLYTHEWOOD – First-year coach Jessica Kivett thought that the roster size would be her biggest concern for the Blythewood boys’ 2020 tennis season.

“We were really were struggling to get players,” said Kivett, in her first head-coaching role after Brenda Warnow retired. “Two of our seniors were new to the team. We had some new eighth graders join, and so we were really in a rebuilding year, so to speak.”

Senior RJ Falvey | Photo: Martha Ladd

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached South Carolina, forcing Gov. Henry McMaster to declare a state of emergency that involved ordering all schools to close, Kivett’s first season was complete after only a week, with the roster issue placed on hold for 2021.

The Bengals roster lost three players from last year. Reed Broderick and Turner Hoffman graduated and Morgan Marshall chose to play lacrosse in the spring.

This year Gen Tsunekawa, a senior exchange student, R.J. Falvey, a transfer student, juniors David Burns and J.P. McNeeley, sophomore Alex Kivett, freshman Tarun Ramkumar, and eighth graders Carter Johnson and Steele Pendleton. Burns, McNeeley, Kivett, Ramkumar all returned from last year, but Burns was getting over an injury and could not play.

“We were lucky to have a team this year,” Kivett said. “Burns was injured in the beginning of the season, and he was due to come back right as we were shutting down.”

The Bengals got in only two matches before schools were cancelled. The season opener was a 4-1 victory over a team that was a combination of Richland Northeast and Westwood players March 10. In that match one of the Blythewood players was away on a field trip, which forced the doubles matches to be scratched. Two days later, the Bengals fell 6-0 to Irmo. 

By that time, March 12, plans were in the works to respond to the pandemic. Restaurants and businesses were closing. In the sports world, the National Basketball Association suspended its season, and the NCAA cancelled all postseason basketball tournaments and halted all spring sports.

“To be honest, we really didn’t suspect anything was going to take place until that week,” Kivett said. “We knew it (COVID-19) was out there, but we didn’t think we were going to be closing up the season quite so soon. As the week wore on it became more definite.”

Even when Gov. McMaster’s order came down to close the schools March 15, there was a hope that at least the tennis teams could still restart their season in a couple of weeks.

“They were disappointed but I think they were wanting to try to practice still, at that point,” Kivett said about the team. “They hoped that we would come back, but obviously we couldn’t do that. They were still eager to keep their skills up just in case.”

For tennis, as with golf, some private courts remained open even though organized matches couldn’t take place. The U.S. Tennis Association even came out with guidelines on social distancing during play, so a lot of clubs stayed open for kids who couldn’t play or practice on high-school courts.

Over the past months, Kivett said she checked in on the players to see how they fared amid the COVID crisis, but the team members were on their own in terms of staying in shape and keeping their skills up. The new coach instead focused on the fall and spring of the next school year.

“It was a challenging season to say the least, but it was a lot of fun. The guys were very inspiring and great to work with. It was much more fun for me,” she said. “I would like to do more for them next year if we come back. I felt like we could grow a lot more as a team in the offseason and fundraising, so I would like to do that if we’re able to. And hopefully we will have some interesting seventh and eighth graders who would like to join us.”

Due to the shortened season, team photos and a photo of senior Gen Tsunekawa were unavailable.