Winning equation

With two No. 1-caliber players in Debbie Jackson and Brittany Bolster, it's advantage Liberty.

Cover Story

May 10, 2006|By MELISSA HOPPERT | MELISSA HOPPERT,SUN REPORTER

Debbie Jackson arrived at Liberty two years ago as a sophomore and quickly marched to the Carroll County singles tennis title. Last year, however, someone stood in her way.

Her teammate.

Brittany Bolster was only a freshman, but she wasn't content to let the distinction of being the team's No. 1 singles player stay with the reigning champion. She went on to defeat Jackson for the county singles crown in three sets.

"It was kind of awkward. We've been playing each other on and off throughout the season, but this was for a title," said Bolster, who finished second at regionals and then lost in the first round of the state tournament. "You just have to look at the person like they are a different person. It's not your teammate. Just play the ball and not the person, basically."

Having two standouts proved beneficial to the Lions' girls team, which finished 18-0 last season, including 6-0 in the county, although it did create some tension between Jackson and Bolster.

"It was kind of hectic. There's just one [No. 1 singles] spot," Bolster said. "It made me play better. It made me smarter in tennis strategy-wise."

This season, after splitting sets in practice during a 90-minute challenge match to determine which spot each plays in, the girls came up with their own solution.

Instead of going back and forth as the No. 1 player, they decided to split the matches. Against county opponents, Bolster plays in the top spot and Jackson plays No. 2, and against Frederick opponents, the order is reversed. It seems to have worked, as Bolster and Jackson helped Liberty (14-2, 5-1 county) gain a share of the county regular-season title with Francis Scott Key.

"Last year, not only did they have to focus on playing matches, but one of their biggest opponents was each other, because they are both so talented that on any given day one could beat the other one in a match," Liberty assistant coach Tim Brecker said.

Said Jackson: "It was good for one year. We are more friends now than last year, because we both are so competitive that it affected our friendship a little bit. But we are better. We've come to an understanding."

Jackson did not begin playing tennis competitively until the seventh grade, but she has always been around the sport. Jackson's parents, both retired Army sergeants, played during their military careers, and her father, David, has been a coach since 1990.

"My dad started us out with plastic rackets and balloons, just hitting over the couch. I guess it just went from there," said Jackson, who is 5 feet 10. "My dad is a big influence on why I play. ... He's built me and my entire game. He's meticulously taught me techniques."

Jackson, who also has lived in Virginia, Hawaii, Florida and Germany, refined her game in Germany.

"It was a character-building experience because it's a completely different game over there," she said. "On the clay courts everything is a lot slower and you have to change your game a lot."

In 2003, the year before she came to Liberty, Jackson went undefeated for her school team in Germany until losing in the DoDDS (Department of Defense Dependents Schools) All-Europe final.

Her brother, David, the DoDDS boys champion that year, won the county boys championship for Liberty in 2004 and is now playing No. 1 singles as a sophomore at UMBC.

"[My brother's] more critical than my dad is actually," Jackson said. "Whenever I play with him, just hitting with him in general makes me a better player because he's so much stronger than I am. His strokes are so much more powerful that I learn by just hitting with him."

Bolster, who is 5-7, began her athletic pursuits at 5 when she took up figure skating in Frederick. She continued skating for five years until she decided to try tennis.

"My dad bought a racket from Dick's [Sporting Goods], and I just looked at it and I thought, `Why haven't I played that sport?' " said Bolster, who also has played softball, lacrosse, soccer and basketball.

Her brother, Chris, also was a standout at Liberty, playing No. 1 doubles as a senior last year.

This season, Bolster and Jackson have had more challenges than just each other. On April 24, the Liberty girls team lost to Walkersville, 3-2, ending a 38-match winning streak. It was the Lions' first loss since April 8, 2004.

"I couldn't do anything right. Everything went wrong. I just played horrible," said Jackson, who has been hampered by tennis elbow and lost, 6-2, 6-0. "I was pretty upset about it because I wanted to go two out of the three years I've played at Liberty undefeated."

The girls team lost again, falling to Francis Scott Key, 3-2, last Wednesday for its first county loss since April 8, 2004.

"It was great to have a streak, but sometimes that's a lot of pressure," said Liberty coach Bruce Damasio, in his 26th season. "We didn't try to talk about it. We didn't focus on it. We are going to try to start another streak. That's what we are supposed to do."

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