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.
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.”