A. C. Cain

Finding the major stories in the minor leagues

Tag: Exeter Tennis

An expectation to win: How Exeter girls’ tennis changed from unnoticed to undefeated

Abby Rutt (Photo: Dr. John Pankratz)

Abby Rutt (Photo: Dr. John Pankratz)

At first glance, Abby Rutt looks more like a high school student than a teacher. On the tennis courts during practice she could easily be mistaken for a member of the team, not the coach. With a petite frame and a nearly permanent smile, she isn’t often described as intimidating. Underestimating her as a coach, however, could be a big mistake.

In the nine seasons Rutt has been a coach, the Exeter girls’ tennis team has gone from being one of the weakest sports programs in the school district to one of the strongest tennis teams in the state.

The journey began in 2007, when Rutt filled the new assistant coach position.

“I needed a job,” Rutt says, laughing at the unglamorous start to the story. “Plus I was going back to school for teaching, it would look good on my resume, and it was kind of the same thing as teaching, coaching, so it was a good way to step into it.”

Abby Rutt coaches a player in her first year as head coach. (Photo: Amanda Cain)

Abby Rutt coaches a player in her first year as head coach. (Photo: Amanda Cain)

Rutt’s carefree attitude as a coach matched that of her players, even when she became the head coach in 2008.

“A lot of those girls at that point were just doing it to have fun and be part of a team. They didn’t expect to win,” Rutt said.

Not only did the players have low expectations, a lack of success throughout the program’s history had formed very low expectations for the team in general.

“I think part of it is that nobody else expected them to win, so they didn’t have that kind of motivation, so it was a little hard to motivate them to push themselves harder to get better and try to get those wins,” Rutt said.

The path to the high school from the courts at the community park. (Photo: Ariane Cain)

The bridge toward the high school campus from the courts at the community park. (Photo: Ariane Cain)

When Rutt began coaching, the team practiced and played on courts owned by the school, but located in a neighboring community park.

“We were literally over the river and through the woods,” Rutt joked, thinking of the trek the girls had to make to get to practice each day.

The community park courts, marked as property of the school district. (Photo: Ariane Cain)

The community park courts, marked as property of the school district. (Photo: Ariane Cain)

On their isolated courts, the team received occasional cheers from the cross-country team passing by, but very few other spectators a part from parents. Several times the police had to be called to settle disputes happening elsewhere in the park during matches.

When Exeter made the unexpected decision to resurface the courts on the high school campus, Rutt made the decision to shift the practices and matches out of the park. While the high school only had four courts compared to the park’s five, Rutt felt the move would be beneficial for the team. While her thoughts were about safety and convenience, the move paid off in more ways than she anticipated.

The high school tennis courts lie just past the football field as a spectator approaches the school.

The high school tennis courts lie just past the football field as a spectator approaches the school. (Photo: Ariane Cain)

“I fully believe that made a huge impact,” Rutt said emphatically. “As far as mentality, and attitude . . . and just feeling part of the school, of the whole athletic program. And having a lot more support. You have the football team walking by and their coaches are calling out to you, and field hockey. There’s so much more support and motivation, and just that sense of belonging that motivates you to want to be a good part, a successful part, of that community.”

Slowly, the team began to improve. As Rutt realized that the team could be competitive, she knew something had to change for them to succeed. That change began with her mentality. Rutt transitioned from being admittedly uncompetitive to creating what she refers to as “an expectation to win.”

“Not just that we as coaches expect you to win, or, you know, the district expects you to win, but you want the players coming into the team to already have that expectation. I’m joining this team and I expect to be a winner and I expect that I will contribute to that winning record for the team,” Rutt explained.

New players joining the team helped to bring this expectation to the players who had grown accustomed to not winning.

“It took a couple years and having one or two really strong players that brought that mentality with them, and set that example. In a lot of ways it’s easier for a player to motivate other players than it is for a coach to motivate the players, in different ways,” Rutt said.

Team members celebrate and commemorate their first county championship in 2014. (Photo: Amanda Cain)

Team members celebrate and commemorate their first county championship in 2014. (Photo: Amanda Cain)

The expectation paid off. Rutt’s proudest memory as a coach is the first Berks County Championship her team won.

“At that point, it was a huge achievement, and it was still somewhat unexpected. Very much unexpected as far as anyone else in the county went, but even as far as us, there was definitely still some part of me that didn’t quite fully believe that we could do it or would do it,” Rutt said. “To see them achieve that, and to see how excited and how happy they were just with that, not even realizing how much more they would go on to achieve.”

Now, the team boasts back-to-back county and district championships, the county and district singles champion and the county double champions. The county singles and double championship matches boasted only Exeter players. Under Rutt’s guidance, the team has gone from unnoticed to unbeatable.

“People know we have a tennis team, for one thing,” Rutt said. “People come to see our matches, which never happened, other than parents. People start following our scores in the paper.”

The girls' tennis team has earned its own corner of the trophy case.

The girls’ tennis team has earned its own corner of the trophy case. (Photo: Ariane Cain)

The team has been recognized at school board meetings and football games. They’re garnering attention for more than just their ability to win, however.

Rutt’s focus on team building and having fun has created one of the tightest teams in the school.

William Cain, Exeter High School principal, is impressed with their development as a team, more than their ability to win.

“How they all pull for each other,” Cain said, when considering what has impressed him the most. “It’s almost as if being a team is more important for them than being winners.”

With numerous players graduating this year and next, the future of the team is uncertain. Rutt takes a stance that all sports teams need to understand when faced with a rebuilding period, and she hopes their fans will understand as well.

“No one’s gonna win forever, everybody has a down year,” Rutt said, but even if the team doesn’t reach the same level of greatness, they now know what is possible and Rutt now has an expectation to win.

Exeter athletes take the stage

At Exeter Township Senior High School the spring musical gives many student athletes the opportunity to perform in a different way as they take to the stage.

Rehearsals general have some students running in late, fresh from practices or games, stopping only long enough to change their shoes, and sliding into their spots on stage. Other students are quietly slipping out early for dance lessons.

With so many different schedules to coordinate, director Kathy Galtere admits that planning rehearsals can be difficult.

“We have so many people running in so many different directions. It can get pretty crazy,” Galtere said.

Exeter’s community and administration has always strongly supported both athletics and the arts, and students are given every opportunity to pursue numerous interests.

The students in the musical cast represent numerous different sports, including wrestling, basketball, tennis, lacrosse, soccer, cheerleading and more.

The students are grateful for the opportunities they receive from their teachers, coaches and directors, work hard to make the final product the best it can be, whether on the stage or on the field.

Exeter is presenting Anything Goes! Friday, April 15 at 7:30 pm and Saturday, April 16 at 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm. For tickets, call Exeter High School at 610-779-3060, or visit the high school website. All tickets are $10.00.

Come out and support your local athletes as they trade their uniforms for costumes and their cleats for tap shoes.

Exeter’s athletic success causes the community to pay attention

On January 29th the Exeter Eagles defeated the Wilson Bulldogs to win the school’s first County Wrestling title. For a school that, until recently, was never known for its athletics, the maiden championship seems to be a symbol of the school’s recent successes. As far as Exeter is concerned, winning is certainly contagious.

The front of Exeter Township Senior High School with its signature eagle.

The front of Exeter Township Senior High School with its signature eagle. Photo: Ariane Cain.

In 2014 the girl’s tennis team won the schools first district title in the sport, and repeated as District III champions in October.

The football team won the Berks County Championship, and hosted the school’s first home district playoff game in November.

In the past few years Exeter has begun to emerge as an athletic threat, and the effects are being felt throughout the entire community.

William Cain has been the principal at Exeter Township Senior High School for five years, after joining the district as an assistant principal in 2007. He has had a front row seat for the athletic transformation. In his first two years at the school the football team had a 1-19 record.

The trophy cases outside of the senior high gym celebrate all of the school's athletic accomplishments. Photo by Ariane Cain

The trophy cases outside of the senior high gym celebrate all of the school’s athletic accomplishments.
Photo: Ariane Cain

“It’s really amazing when you look at it,” Cain said. “What the tennis team has done, and the football team, and now the wrestling team. It’s great.”

According to the 2010 US Census, Exeter Township has a population of 25,550. It is a large community, and boasts the 4th largest school district in Berks County. Exeter Township Senior High School has just over 1,400 students, with a senior class of 388 students according to the 2015-2016 school profile.

Exeter Township School District Athletic Program supports 14 different sports and boasts 67 different teams within these 14 sports. According to the 2014-2015 Interscholastic Title IX Disclosure Form, the high school alone has 757 student athletes.

These student athletes have recently brought their community together to support the athletic program and the schools.

Now when one drives down Rt. 422, the central road in Exeter, signs of the school district’s presence are everywhere.

The Exeter Dairy Queen sign congratulating the wrestling team on their recent championship. Photo by Ariane Cain

The Exeter Dairy Queen sign congratulating the wrestling team on their recent championship. Photo: Ariane Cain

The electronic sign outside of the local Dairy Queen boasts of recent athletic accomplishments and honors specific student athletes each week. Every team that wins a championship is honored on the Dairy Queen sign, as well as specific athletes being honored each week. The restaurant’s owner, Hamid Chaundry, donated a new video scoreboard for Exeter’s Don Thomas Stadium over the summer.

The local Giant grocery store has a spirit wear display, where it offers Exeter Eagles merchandise alongside Philadelphia Eagles and Philadelphia Phillies merchandise. With the recent rise in success, the community of Exeter has found new home teams to rally behind.

The rack at the local Giant selling Exeter spirit wear. Photo by Ariane Cain

The rack at the local Giant selling Exeter spirit wear.
Photo: Ariane Cain

Abigail Rutt, Exeter’s girl’s tennis assistant coach and an Exeter alumna, has noticed the impact the athletic success has had on both the community and the students.

“It gives them a sense of belonging, of being part of something,” Rutt said. “For all of them it provides a shared experience that gives them a connection to each other, to the school community, to the athletic community, the list goes on.”

The Reading Fightin’ Phils have hosted “Exeter Night” for the past two seasons, and will again this coming season, to recognize the school’s athletic accomplishments. Residents are offered free tickets, and it has become one of the busiest nights each season.

“It has even been more unifying within the school community,” Cain said. “It has brought together all different groups to support each other and share the success.”

This past season, for the first time, the high school had to pre-sell football tickets in order to eliminate a backup at the gates on game night. The athletic program’s recent successes have given the community something to brag about, and all of Exeter Township intends to make the most of it.

For local scholastic athletes, community recognition helps

Nearly every professional athlete, at some point in his career, thanks the fans and the city for contributing to his success, but is the connection between a community and a player or team really that important?

Many studies answer yes, and a quick look at the Exeter Township Senior High School Girls’ Tennis program shows that the relationship between a team and the community is a lot more important than one might expect.

When Abigail Rutt began coaching Exeter’s girls’ tennis team as an assistant coach, the team was far from the best. Now, 9 years later, the team is division, Berks County, and District III Champions for the second consecutive year.

For several years the team played at the community park across a creek from the school. Their matches were sparsely attended, and many other teams overlooked the small program.

When the on-campus courts were resurfaced, the team relocated to its original home next to the football field. Suddenly every team knew when the team had matches. The football team walks past on the way up from the practice field and doesn’t hesitate to clap and cheer for a good point or a concluding match.

Suddenly, the team had once again become a part of the school community, and as their success began to grow, so did the community’s awareness.

ExeterGirlsTennis

Graphic created by Ariane Cain. Graphic created using easel.ly. Data gathered from PennLive and Berks Game Day.  Graphic shows each tennis season and the team’s record for each year.  Years the team made the playoffs show an individual regular season record, which excludes any county, district, or state tournament results.

In 2014, after becoming the first Girl’s Tennis District Champions in the school’s history, the team was honored during halftime of a football game. Coach Rutt, who served as head coach from 2010-2013 before switching back to assistant coach, references the moment as the time the team began to notice the community’s support.

“Using one of the biggest athletic programs to bring attention to one of the smallest really created a sense of belonging and community within the student-athlete population, and gave the girls a wonderful experience of being recognized and supported by their peers.”

The football game was the first, but not the only, major recognition the girls have received.

The team’s accomplishments have been recognized at school board meetings multiple times. For the past two years the Reading Fightin’ Phils have recognized the team’s accomplishments on the field at FirstEnergy Stadium during “Exeter Night.” The tennis team, along with other Exeter teams, will be honored again this June.

The rise in community attention has had a large impact on the team. Rutt says the support gives the girls great motivation, and the recognition gives them a sense of pride and achievement. They work harder every year to be able to share more accomplishments with the community.

“Their interest in following our program has grown,” Rutt says, talking about the community. “We’ve certainly gotten more recognition as a program, and I like to think the popularity of our sport is growing, all due to our achievements over the past few seasons.”

The girls have done their part to foster the growing relationship between the team and the community. Rutt says the girls have not only helped to expand the high school program, but have also encouraged interest at the younger, developmental levels with a strong presence as volunteers and instructors at local camps and clinics.

Hopefully the success and recognition will prevent the program from fading back to the forgotten team it once was. The smiles that fill the girls’ faces at each event prove that the increased community support has meant a lot to each member of the team. For Rutt, everything is captured by the first public recognition at the football game.

“Walking back into the stands with the girls and watching them being stopped and congratulated by complete strangers was really a thrill.”

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