WALKERSVILLE — On Tuesdays during the offseason, Middletown tennis coach Patrick Barber hosts an "open court" session at the high school.
Anyone is free to come and play or learn more about the Knights' program. Gradually, it became more and more popular, and, now, "There are balls all over the court," according to Barber.
When Barber took over the program four years ago, the Middletown boys were humming along with a senior-laden cast of players, while the Middletown girls were bumping along as a middling program in the county.
Barber quickly recognized that to build a sustainable winner, he had to get the rest of the community involved. So, he gave up his own free time to hit with anyone that wanted to hit. He encouraged his players to pick up a racket as often as they could, and his message gained traction.
"Coach Barber is really passionate about tennis, and that makes us really passionate about it," said senior Macy Horman, a four-year player for him.
The Knights' tennis program is now flourishing. With Tuesday's 4-1 victories, the Middletown boys and girls improved to 13-0 this season, setting the stage for the showdown with the county's preeminent program for most of the decade, Urbana, in a couple of weeks.
"It's been a full commitment," Barber said. "The high school has really supported and been behind us all the way. We have come so far since I took over [in 2015]. It's leaps and bounds better."
In addition to getting more people playing, Barber realized he had to commit to his younger players to keep the momentum rolling from season to season.
Horman and her boyfriend, Jack Kaminski, each assumed No. 2 singles roles for the girls and boys teams, respectively, as freshmen.
After they both realized their games may be better suited for doubles, they have both played No. 1 doubles for the last three seasons. Yet, they have never had the same partner for more than one season.
"That's crazy," Barber said.
Often times, high school doubles teams grow together over the course of several seasons. It allows the players to build chemistry and improve their results.
Horman and Kaminski have never had that luxury. Yet, they continue to thrive in their roles, in part, because Barber keeps finding and developing good players to plug in alongside them.
"We don't have a lot of 'Wow' factor on these teams, but everyone can play," Barber said. "There is not really a weak spot in the lineup for the girls or the boys."
Horman has clicked this season at No. 1 doubles with new partner Rithika Krishnamoorthy, a junior. The pair has only dropped one match all season.
Kaminski, on the other hand, was paired with Matteo DeMarchi, a junior foreign exchange student from Italy, after placing second in the county and regional tournaments last season with William Bower, who graduated.
At first, Kaminski struggled to build chemistry with DeMarchi, who spoke limited English and was more accustomed to playing singles.
"He's very passionate. I think that must be the Italian in him," Kaminski said. "And he is a beast at the net. We just needed more time to talk one-on-one and slow things down on the court. We had to learn what each of us did well and mesh those things together."
The marquee matchup Tuesday took place at No. 1 singles on the girls side, as Walkersville's Julie Wallace met Middletown's Alexa Orlando.
The two split their four meetings last season, with each winning in the regular season and the postseason. Wallace won her third consecutive Frederick County title, while Orlando claimed the Region I championship.
This season, Wallace swept both of their matches, winning Tuesday's encounter 3-6, 6-4, 10-4 (ultimate tiebreaker) to stay undefeated this season.
"Julie has had a spectacular year," Walkersville coach Susan Givens said. "She really has a stellar mental game in many aspects. When things don't go your way, a lot of players get completely derailed. But Julie gets right back in it. She does not let small things slow her down."