Derrick Webb, Staff Writer
CHILLICOTHE — There’s many differences between Sylvia Gray and Maddie Shipley.
Gray, a Unioto senior, stands at every bit of 5-feet and is the most decorated tennis player in Ross County history. She’s never lost a regular season match, has qualified for the state tournament three times, and made playing tennis cool at Unioto.
Shipley, a freshman at Adena, towers over Gray near 6-feet tall and is just beginning her high school journey. She’s played just five high school matches, has only qualified for a district tournament so far, and is the first Adena student to compete in tennis since the mid-1990s.
But no matter their surroundings or career stories to this point, Gray and Shipley, through tennis, have built a lasting friendship that continues to benefit the both of them.
“It’s inspiring [to watch Sylvia play],” Shipley said. “She wins all the time. Tennis isn’t that big around here but she’s made it that way. She’s won the most, she’s made it to state three times and she plays all the time. I’m just trying to be like her.”
Shipley is just 4-1 this season and it isn’t because she hasn’t tried to schedule matches. Adena doesn’t have a team, so Shipley cannot participate in many events or matches as an individual.
But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t worked at getting better all year long.
Instead of live competition, she’s spent most of the fall honing her skills on the practice courts with her father, Duane. That paid off last week when she won four matches at the OHSAA Division II Sectional Tournament.
“I didn’t have any matches during the year so I had to practice a lot with my dad,” Shipley said. “We went to Washington Court House a lot, worked on my serve a lot and just worked on getting better. The first few matches [of the sectional tournament], I won pretty easily. I had a little bit of trouble with my second match, but my dad helped me get through that.”
Even with the loss to her friend, Shipley had won enough to advance into the district level of play. Gray, of course, won the sectional championship and will now be looking for her fourth district title at 25-0.
She’s been here before and, at this point, it’s business as usual.
“Obviously, it’s a jump in competition,” Gray said. “In season, I don’t get as much competition. I usually just spend time working on the little things. But it helps a lot because I can’t typically work on those things during the tournament. I just try to keep my head in the game throughout every match.”
The district and, hopefully, state tournaments are the final events of Gray’s illustrious career. Her resume speaks for itself, having been the only Ross Countian to ever win three district titles.
Now that the journey is coming to an end, in a high school sense at least, she’s starting to look back on everything she’s accomplished.
“It’s really sad. Our very last match of the season, everyone cried,” Gray said. “It’s the end. But I’m thankful I have the district tournament and the state tournament ahead of me, and that my season isn’t completely over yet. I wish I could just go back and relive some of the nights I’ve had. It’s been amazing playing with my team. I’m just thankful for all the support I’ve had. I’m savoring every day right now.”
As Gray mentioned, she still has two huge opportunities in front of her.
Wednesday, alongside Shipley, Gray will compete in the OHSAA Southeast District Tournament. She’s paired against Wheelersburg’s Cadie Jenkins while Shipley has the task of beating Washigton’s Brooklyn Foose.
With only eight players in the bracket, Gray and Shipley need to win just two matches to advance to the district final, where’d they’d play each other.
The tournament is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. at the Ohio University Tennis Center.
But no matter how Wednesday turns out, Gray is rooting for Shipley while her freshman counterpart returns the favor. Their friendship runs much deeper than wins and losses.
“I want Maddie to win multiple sectional and district titles,” Gray said of Shipley. “I wouldn’t rather play with anybody else at the district tournament and I wouldn’t want to try and get to state with anyone else this year. She deserves the recognition that I’ve gotten over the past four years.”
Shipley echoed those comments and even hinted at building a program at Adena, much like Gray helped do at Unioto.
“I want to follow in Sylvia’s footsteps. She’s done so many great things. I want to do that, too,” Shipley said. “It’s exciting with what she’s done. So I’m trying to follow her,” Shipley said. “We’re trying to get the word out. We’ve had it shared on Facebook, I’ve had people texting me about how the matches are going … I really think that means we could see more come out to play next year.”