May 7th, 2018
Marjory Stoneman Girls’ Tennis, Playing for ‘The 17,’ Run to State Semifinals
America in February was stunned by yet another school shooting, this time in the Ft. Lauderdale suburb of Parkland at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
This week, almost three months later at the Florida High School State Tennis Championships in Orlando, “The 17” was a constant refrain from Marjory Stoneman Douglas students competing for a state tennis title.
The MSD girls’ team on Thursday lost in the state semifinals of the 4A division championships. They fell to Miami Palmetto after a run driven by the memory of the 17 students and faculty killed on Feb. 14, with chants before each match dedicated to “The 17.”
“Tennis is like a release, it helps hitting a ball, getting your anger out, your emotions out, and playing for the 17, it helps,” said team member Olivia Martinelli.
“I think we also have a bigger purpose,” added team member Madison Leal. “It’s to honor and play for the 17, it’s not just playing for ourselves or our team, but this year is different. We have to play for the 17 and we have to make them proud. We wouldn’t be here today without having a big purpose, and our purpose today is to make them proud.”
The girls’ team wore shirts with the 17 shooting victims listed on the back, shirts gifted to the team.
“We got so much support from other teams every single time we played,” said Samantha Bonnin, the lone senior on the squad. “One time we got sunflowers, and we got bracelets, and another team made these shirts for us. It didn’t feel like the same competition in a way, it felt like everyone wanted to give you a hug at the end. But once we got to districts it was about us and about playing for the 17 people who died.”
MSD Girls’ Tennis Coach Amy Pena said this year’s season was delayed before getting off to a bumpy start. In the end the team pulled together, buoyed by community support.
“Someone hit a tennis ball and it made a sound like a gunshot, and it freaked [one of the team members] out,” Pena said of one of her early practices. “Everything was put on hold until the first week in March, and then it was just trying to get the kids out — out to practices, to just get them back in school, to get them to a comfortable place with the sounds, the smells, the sights.
“Fortunately we had such an outpouring of support by the community, by Parkland, and all over Broward County. The Miami Open brought us down for an amazing day of healing and happiness. Chris Evert brought us to her tennis courts and worked with us one-on-one, worked with every single player, then sat down and talked with us about how to handle stressors, how to handle your emotions in a match, she was fantastic. The Miami Open gave us their windscreens, and they’re up on our courts.
“The girls have come together with what happened. So much of the school has come together too. As far as the team goes it does make your closer, and you know that you’re fighting for 17 lives who can’t be here right now to participate, and do what you’re doing.”
Team member Amanda Aponte recalled a rough start to the season that not only improved, but became a source of comfort and inspiration.
“We grew a lot and we grew together, and we supported each other more and more, and then we just became a family,” Aponte said. “Throughout the season it was amazing. I felt like I was part of a sisterhood, not just a school team.”
A number of team members saw the tennis court as a respite from the fear, worry and sadness.
“You’re playing tennis, you’re not thinking of anything else,” said teammate Anne Pratner. “It’s just focusing on the game and playing.” Teammate Anne Marie John said, “When I’m on the court, it distracts me, so I don’t think about it at all, I just think about playing tennis.”
Playing for “The 17,” the MSD girls’ team were disappointed with the state semifinal loss but not with their effort during a season that almost didn’t happen — but then took on another meaning.
As the school year winds down, some players say they will compete at USTA tournaments during the summer. Bonnin, the lone senior, looks forward to playing collegiately, or on a college club team in the USTA “Tennis on Campus” series of tournaments. Returning almost all their starters, the MSD girls will be a force again in 2019.
“Every single time before we get on the court we do our [team] chant,” Bonnin said. “[The 17] are always on our minds, and it’s what pushes us.”
For more from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas girls’ team and to see their team chant, click on the video above.