When Highland sophomore Andrew Farrar stepped onto the tennis court March 18 for the Hawks' first match this season, against Notre Dame, he could not believe what he saw -- about 30 spectators surrounding the courts.
That number may not seem large, but it was a sharp change from when he first made the team as an eighth-grader in 2001.
The program "was pretty much nonexistent," Farrar said. "People joked about it. Nobody would come watch us. Parents would come and drop their kids off [and leave]. Now, the word is getting out."
The word is winning. Highland has not lost a team match since the Delaney Athletic Conference championship in 2000, the first year the school had a team. The Hawks since have completed consecutive undefeated seasons, each capped by DAC tournament titles.
Most impressive, however, is that Highland's success is not limited to victories over private schools with enrollments comparable to its own -- 170. Last year, the Hawks knocked off large public schools such as Fauquier, Liberty, Massaponax and James Wood.
"We've really made a name for ourselves," Farrar said. "It's pretty impressive. I don't really know how we did it."
Farrar paused and realized that he knew the answer. He said it was the work of former coach Paola Parlagreco, who started the program in 2000 but stepped down after last season when her son transferred from the school.
"She really made this program," said Farrar, who was 17-0 in singles last year and 10-0 in doubles and is now team captain. "She made us all relax, and that's how it became fun."
Highland did not have an upper school (grades 9-12) until 1996. It also did not have tennis courts until October 1998, when the family of Isaac L. Parrish, whose children and grandchildren attended the school, donated the majority of the $72,000 needed to build the four courts that lie just beyond lacrosse fields behind the school buildings. Two other anonymous donors also contributed.
"The reason the tennis courts happened was because the Parrish family came to us and said, 'Let's make it happen,' " said Susan Lewis, Highland's director of development. "They have a huge passion for tennis, and they wanted Highland to give that same opportunity to the students."
When Parlagreco held tryouts for her first team, she needed to fill five roster spots. Only five players tried out.
Turnout doubled the next year, and last season, a few more hopefuls appeared. This season, 20 players sought spots on the school's most successful team after seeing the Hawks defeat opponents from bigger schools.
"These kids are good, and they could compete against" bigger schools, Parlagreco said. "They just needed the chance to do it. Once they did, they played out of their minds. . . . I was very lucky to get players of that caliber. They were tournament-type players."
Part of the team's strength lies in foreign exchange students who arrive each year. Last season, senior Juan Herrera, from Colombia, went undefeated in singles and doubles. This year, juniors Lenny Hoene (Germany) and Oleg Sirghii (Moldova) will occupy two of the Hawks' top three spots.
"Their work ethic is great," said first-year coach Laura Couk, a playing partner of Parlagreco, who recommended Couk as her successor. "They come out there, and there's no fooling around."