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Cotey: Gibbs trades style points for straight-up skill

Gibbs’ Akilah James, a Brooklyn, N.Y., transfer, hits a forehand while playing No. 1 singles.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Gibbs’ Akilah James, a Brooklyn, N.Y., transfer, hits a forehand while playing No. 1 singles.

ST. PETERSBURG — Gibbs has a girls tennis team, and it is very good.

"We're the most successful team the school has," said coach and athletic director Bonita Holmes. "Really."

Three straight district titles, she says. The first region win in school history. One more step from a trip to state.

"Who's done that?" she asks, rhetorically, because we all know the answer. No one.

Still, she looks around, and there are maybe a dozen or so people watching a dandy little battle at No. 1 singles. "Tennis isn't a big sport here," she says.

In fact, it's barely a sport at all. The boys team had three players. The girls have five, the minimum needed to play a match.

And yet, how about them Gladiators?

Tuesday afternoon, the girls pulled off an unlikely victory, beating Chamberlain 4-3. One more win, on Thursday at King, will send the Gladiators to state.

It's amazing, really.

One team, nattily dressed in matching green skirts, white tops and white visors.

The other, a mismatched bunch of purple and blue tops, pink and white shorts, and one yellow visor.

For the record, a parent bought the team Gibbs T-shirts to wear for matches, and some of the players will occasionally wear a tennis skirt. But you know how kids are, Holmes said. If you don't remind them …

But who has time to worry about uniforms when you don't have anyone to wear them?

That is Holmes' big concern, every year. Despite two straight district championships, Holmes wondered if she'd even be able to go for a third this season.

She had three players.

Lucic Petrova, an exchange student from Czechoslovakia, made four. Akilah James, a transfer from Brooklyn, N.Y. — Brooklyn! — made five.

"We were close to not even having a team," Holmes said.

Now, they are close to making history.

James was a find. She spent her junior year at the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy, but things didn't work out there.

She now lives with her legal guardian, Attis Oliver, who trains with her a few hours a week at Lake Vista and Campbell parks.

Her arrival bumped Lindsay Hodgdon to No. 2, which was fine with the senior. According to her coach, Hodgdon handled the move "gracefully," considering she had won the district title at No. 1 the past two seasons and advanced to state.

And No. 3 singles, deceptively hard-hitting Ebony Lamar became, and I'm fairly confident I do not need to research this point, the first player in the history of Florida high school tennis to win a playoff match wearing capri-style sweat pants and docksiders, making her 6-2, 6-1 victory that more impressive.

She was the first to win Tuesday, setting the tone and striking fear in the heart of any Chamberlain player who is into judging books by their cover.

Lucic won at No. 4; Masani Bailey won easily at No. 5. Both played through some nausea, cramps and illness.

"So excited to win this. I just can't believe how I feel, I'm so happy for these girls," Holmes said. Then she wanted to know if a story would be in the newspaper.

And whether she should show up at school this morning and grab the microphone during morning announcements to tell the whole world what she already knew.

Gibbs has a girls tennis team, and it is very good.

Cotey: Gibbs trades style points for straight-up skill 04/20/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 20, 2010 11:20pm]
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