Giggles and ground strokesGillman, Alleva lay the foundation for Red Wing’s girls tennis program
By: Brett Boese, The Republican Eagle
Six years ago, Katie Gillman and Rose Alleva began playing competitive tennis together. Almost without exception, their doubles matches in summer tournaments would degenerate into a gigglefest — while the ball was still in play.
“We’re more serious now,” asserts Gillman, noting their fits of laughter now come between points.
Serious or not, the duo has enjoyed a wild ride since joining Red Wing’s varsity as tiny seventh-graders. They assumed the top two singles positions as freshmen and have since led Red Wing to three straight Missota Conference titles. Each postseason Red Wing has advanced one step further, culminating in last fall’s trip to the Section 1AA semifinals in Rochester.
That was the first time the ascending program reached Rochester in what many consider the toughest section in the state. Red Wing finished the 2008 season ranked No. 4 by the Minnesota State High School Tennis Coaches Association. The team was eliminated by No. 5 Rochester Century, which promptly lost to top-ranked Rochester Mayo in the finals.
It’s been a growing process for the pair, literally and figuratively. Each stood less than 4-foot-8 when their varsity career began, but each is a now a giant in the game of tennis.
Gillman became the first female in Red Wing history to reach 100 career wins on Aug. 24, while Alleva joined that rarefied air five days later with a tournament victory over Gillman, of all people.
Red Wing coach Tom Gillman believes they have become two of the top 40 players in the state.
“There are a lot of girls that have helped make this program strong,” coach Gillman said. “I just see Katie and Rose as the founding fathers, so to speak. They were the foundation.”
“It’s nice to see how we’ve improved and how they sort of built the program around us two,” Alleva added.
The growing process
Theresa Gillman, Tom’s wife and Katie’s mother, is the matriarch of girls tennis program. She’s had a daughter — Katie or Lindsay — playing No. 1 singles since 2005 and rarely misses a match.
One performance, however, still stands out.
During a match at Hutchinson in Katie’s first year on varsity, Theresa Gillman overheard opposing parents discussing her diminutive daughter’s prospects at No. 3 singles. None gave her a chance. A few even speculated that her slight frame wouldn’t hold up.
That chatter quickly spread from mother to father to daughter. When the match was complete, the Gillmans couldn’t help but smile after their youngest had cleaned up.
That day provided a glimpse at what the pair would face over the next few years.
“I think they would laugh at us,” Alleva said of their opponents.
“We were a good foot shorter than most of the girls,” recalled Katie Gillman. “But we were just like, ‘Let’s do this!’”
Gillman began her career doing most of her work from the baseline. She rarely went for winners or played at the net. Her steadiness allowed her to excel against older, more experienced opponents.
Alleva’s game was diametrically opposed to her fellow captain. She was aggressive and impatient. She relied on her athleticism — she’s currently mulling numerous Division I hockey scholarships — to survive, but sometimes fell into a funk when things didn’t go well.
“On a small level, this is like Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova,” coach Gillman said. “Rose can be more volatile, but when she plays well she’s very tough to beat. She brings so much athleticism and aggressiveness to her game. Katie has always been the steady grinder ... but they’ve grown toward each other over the years.”
“Earlier on we used to be opposites, but now we’re more a combination because we’ve worked on our weaknesses,” Alleva said. “We rubbed off on each other.”
While Gillman and Alleva may have laid the foundation for the program, they’ve had plenty of help. In a roundabout way, their work has allowed others to excel. Instead of being prematurely bumped up to the top of the lineup, the younger girls have been able to fill in the lower ranks and dominate.
Junior Danielle Brooks and sophomore Marisa Toivonen have played predominately at No. 3 and No. 4 singles the last two seasons and racked up impressive win totals. Both have played up in recent years — with great success — as coach Gillman has experimented with different lineups.
The talented underclassmen currently have 64 and 56 wins apiece, which could allow them to double the century club in the next few years. Lindsey Wilson, a 2009 grad, fell six wins short of breaking that barrier last fall.
Gillman and Alleva recall the darker days, however, when .500 records were celebrated at the year-end banquets.
The transition from sub-par program to a state title contender can all be traced back to the duo, according to coach Gillman.
“They gave the team such an injection of confidence right away,” he said.
The natural progression would be the state tournament this fall, but that’s easier said than done. As usual, the road will go through Rochester. Red Wing gets its first look at Century in a dual meet Sept. 21, while Mayo looms large as sections approach in early October. The Spartans are the reigning Section 1AA power, but the upstart Wingers hope to upset the establishment.
Challenges, after all, are nothing new to the duo.
“If we didn’t have each other, we probably wouldn’t be as good as we are,” Katie Gillman said.