Ah-Tennis-Team

ALAMO HEIGHTS — Blair Drought-Villarreal collapsed on the Blossom Tennis Center court in exaltation as screaming teammates rushed toward her.

The ensuing Oct. 27 congratulations from teammates, seconds after a victorious nail-biter, signaled Alamo Heights High School’s 23rd ascent to the state tournament, plus validation that head coach Larry Oxford has been doing the right thing for years.

It was during a changeover that Drought-Villarreal — the lowest-seeded girl competing in singles play from the Mules’ varsity team — realized she’d be contesting the decisive points to determine whether a November trip to Texas A&M University at College Station was in the offing.

“I looked over and saw everybody watching me, and I was like, ‘It’s down to me,’” the junior said.

“The hardest thing to teach is how to finish a match,” said Oxford, who preaches, “Get the ball to go where you want it to go, under pressure.”

With her team’s playoff hopes resting on Drought-Villarreal’s skill, coaches said the 16-year-old displayed maturity beyond her age.

“I felt like I aged about 10 years in that one day — just how intense it was,” said  Mules assistant coach Dave Henkel, 29. “Everybody calls her ‘The Beast’ because she just wins when the pressure’s on.”

“Winning that match just shows I can handle pressure,” Drought-Villarreal added.       

The way this regional final played out was déjà vu. A season ago, in the remaining match, the girl on the bottom rung from Alamo Heights also narrowly conquered her Dripping Springs High School opposition, last year’s and this year’s foe, to seal advancement to state.

The current fall team format is actually the brainchild of an Alamo Heights tennis first family.

Larry Oxford, alongside older brother Terry, a former Mules coach, conceived the rules adopted by UIL in 1983. Two schools contest seven doubles matches — three boys, three girls and one mixed — and 12 singles, six by each gender. Playing two-out-of-three sets, the first institution with 10 individual triumphs wins. The scoring is unique; it’s the only sport combining results from both sexes into one composite.

Larry Oxford relishes the spirit of camaraderie.

“The boys and girls travel together, practice together; cheer each other on. It’s neat to try to mold a team together of far different skill levels, ages, commitment to the sport. … It makes the No. 6 (seed) equally important as the No. 1.”

Although the Mules eventually lost in the Class 5A finals in 2016, and the semifinals this season, Alamo Heights has accrued a dozen state championships in team tennis, and arguably could be crowned the king of the court, possessing one of the most dynastic reigns of all Texas high schools.

At the Nov. 16 Alamo Heights Independent School District board meeting, this year’s varsity tennis team was recognized with a metaphorical victory lap.

“Our community believes we have a strong program that’s going to be competitive every year — makes a lot of demands on the players,” Oxford said. “I think people appreciate the level of excellence we’ve had over a long period of years.”

Oxford is in his second stint coaching the Mules. He controlled the reins for much of the 1970s and 1980s, but left to pursue a law degree.

A return to the fold managing the Alamo Heights Tennis Center in 2000, piloting the school’s tennis program once again in 2007, and teaching Spanish at Robbins Academy, AHISD’s nontraditional high school, was a vision come true, although he initially balked at the idea — until he slept on it.

“I had a dream. In the dream, I won the lottery and was now independently wealthy,” Oxford said, and told his boss, ‘“I’m out of here,’ took off my tie and went straight to the tennis courts and started hitting tennis balls. And I woke up and I said, ‘I’m not independently wealthy, but if I were, I’d go to the tennis courts the rest of my life.’”

So, with a message “from the good man upstairs” received, his fantasy became a reality.                

“Oxford is a staple in the San Antonio tennis community and his tenure in our district continues to show year in and year out his ability to put together one of the top teams in the state,” said Jennifer Roland, AHISD athletic director   

Oxford’s first-year assistant calls his mentor “a legend.” Henkel, a three-year varsity player at Clemens High School, couldn’t beat ‘em, so he joined ‘em.

“Alamo Heights has always been a tough match. When I was in high school it was always, ‘You’re going to get blown out by Alamo Heights,’ and it’s still pretty much the case,” Henkel said.

The writer has a child who plays for the team.

   

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