Coming into the 2019 spring athletic season, the Woodburn High School girls tennis program was in competitive limbo.
On the one hand, the Bulldogs had long been one of the best draws in the spring, routinely seeing between 30 and 40 girls coming out to compete every year. On the other hand, the program had long struggled to be competitive. Winless seasons were a regular occurrence.
For first-year head coach Megan Freel, she saw these issues as connected. With only four tennis courts on the high school campus and limited practice time due to a combination of weather and sharing space with the boys teams, it was difficult for any individual on the team to get the necessary practice time to be competitive against opposing teams.
"In order to give the girls the attention and the training they deserve, I thought that getting the program down to 20 girls instead of 35 would be extremely beneficial," Freel said.
That meant cuts. Part of the girls tennis program's popularity was due to being the lone sport at the school that didn't cut players. While that boosted the number of players who came out for the sport, it also meant decreased one-on-one time with coaches and no competitive incentive to get better. Freel wanted to change that.
"I really wanted to come out strong with my assistance coaches, and we just talked about a really strong season of rebuilding, not even in terms of skill, but how does it look like to be a strong women's tennis team in terms of our etiquette, sportsmanship and how we get along together," Freel said.
It was a difficult decision, but one which she felt was ultimately beneficial to 20 players who remained on the varsity and junior varsity teams this year. Freel cut nearly a dozen girls from the team, thanked them for coming out and hoped to see them next year.
Freel saw the remaining girls respond immediately with a bit of competitive energy injected into the program.
"They told me they felt more like a team and a sisterhood like they have in years past," Freel said. "Right now we're really working on dedication and skills development, and seeing tennis as a serious sport and a sport they can really grow in."
A former district doubles champion at Tualatin High School, Freel grew up around tennis. It was the de facto sport in her family, which lived in a cul-de-sac, allowing them to hit the ball back and forth in the street with her dad and sister.
"I really loved the sport," Freel said. "Tennis was always kind of my passion. It's very much a part of my life, it's my outlet, my passion after work."
To Freel, tennis means family — and not just because she played with her actual family. The family of a team, supporting each other from the sideline and competitively pushing each other to get better every game, is what attracts her to tennis to this day.
After teaching for several years on the east coast, Freel saw an opening for a teacher/tennis coach position in the Woodburn School District and it felt as if the stars had aligned just right to bring her home.
When Freel took the job, she wanted to instill that same family mentality into the Bulldogs and take the sport as seriously as some of the boys sports in the school district. The results began to emerge almost immediately.
"The great part is that I noticed quite a few girls step up," Freel said. "I noticed them stepping up in the training, running and conditioning. And up and playing a little harder playing some practice matches. I did notice an up in seriousness and focus — just the right amount. We have on this team, this focused intensity when we step on the court in a match."
Over the course of the past two months this season, Freel has seen the team grow in leaps and bounds. When the team was first coalescing, the girls were hitting balls out of the court and struggling to find a place on the team. In the weeks since, the team has rallied around its drilling, conditioning and strategy, allowing the girls to discover what game styles they are comfortable with and figuring out how they want to compete.
"Our matches are getting a lot closer," Freel said. "We're getting to more deuce points. We almost tied with Sisters the other day — teams that are competitive and figure to have historically good programs."
The Bulldogs are led by their singles players, chief among them being their lone senior Aurora Villa Juan. A quiet leader on and off the court, Freel describes her as calm, subtle and not easily upset in games.
"When another opponent is feeling pressure or stress, Aurora just maintains this level head and continues hitting her shots," Freel said. "A lot of times that is enough for her to pull out a win."
In the No. 2 slot, Janeth Jimenez has emerged as an aggressive player, which lends itself well to a sport in which many players are content to simply hit the ball back and forth and wait for their opponent to make a mistake.
"She has an incredible play style and I love it," Freel said. "She's fast, quick and aggressive. Not common in female tennis players at this level and age.
"It freaks out girls. We usually just volley back and forth. Janeth comes out swinging, and it's more of what we see on the men's side. It's how I grew up playing, and I'm trying to teach all my girls to swing for it and play more aggressive tennis."
Further down the depth chart, Yesi Lopez opened the season as No. 4 singles but has moved up to No. 3 and is challenging Jimenez for the second spot.
"She's a young talent, and her and Janeth hit all summer," Freel said. "I'm really looking for her, Janeth and Aurora to possibly show up at districts and make a statement for Woodburn."
With the season winding to a close this month, Freel is excited for the path ahead of the Woodburn girls program. With help from assistants Raquel Smith, Don Freel (her dad) and Miguel Trejo, along with a young, dedicated core, Freel is looking forward to seeing where the team can go in the years to come.
"I think what we have at Woodburn with these tennis players is truly something profound, and I think in terms of skill and as a family, could be really amazing to see where it goes in the future," she said.