by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — Love.
In tennis, the word means a score of nothing or zero. But outside tennis, it means desiring the good of and having affection for others.
Christy Sheetz, head coach of the girls tennis team at Hayden High School in Topeka, will never claim much credit for the school’s first girls state tennis championship. But others say it is Sheetz’s love for everyone that made the team successful this past season.
The team’s assistant coach Lynn Bishop, a 1975 graduate and former Hayden tennis team member herself, called Sheetz “an individual with a deep and abiding Catholic faith” who “guided the team to the state, despite dealing with challenges off the court.”
Sheetz has been “served” some challenges this year, for sure.
On Jan. 20, her dad Steve Hohman passed away — leaving not just a hole in her heart, but leaving her to make some tough choices.
Sheetz’s mother Mary Hohman was diagnosed in 1978 with multiple sclerosis, and her sister Kathy has developmental disabilities.
“When my dad passed away in January, I had to move in with my mom and sister to take care of them because they both require 100-percent, 24-hour care, full time,” Sheetz said.
Married for 25 years, Sheetz has three daughters. Balancing marriage, motherhood, a full-time job at Hayden as director of advancement and alumni relations while caring for her mother and sister, as well as coaching, was not realistic.
So, before school started, the family made “the really difficult decision” to move Mary into Rossville Nursing Center and Kathy in with Sheetz, her husband and their youngest daughter.
Meanwhile, on the court, the tennis team faced its own challenges.
First was the weather.
“It was probably the hottest we have ever coached. I can’t remember another season where there were more 100-degree or above [days] for as many days in a row those first few weeks of practice. That alone can be really, really brutal,” Sheetz said.
Then, there was the extra mental pressure.
Sophomore Ainzley Zulueta won the state championship last year. Nearly everyone expected her to repeat as champion.
“Last year, I was really excited to win as a freshman,” said Zulueta, “but I felt like there was a lot more pressure this year to follow it up.”
Sheetz’s daughter Emily, a sophomore, and her doubles partner Lauren Sandstrom, a junior and daughter of school principal James Sandstrom, felt pressure of their own.
In 2021, the two placed seventh at state in the doubles competition. This year, they were expected to do even better.
Besides weather and the mental pressure, Sheetz said the season itself was “fast and furious.” The first meet was held Aug. 20, just five days after the team’s first practice and the first full day of classes, not leaving the two coaches much time to assess skill levels to fill their No. 2 singles position.
Freshman Grace Funk earned that position while seniors Bri Barnett and Sloane Sims returned for the second year as the No. 2 doubles team.
“Sloane and I had just taken up the sport for fun as something to do with friends, and when we made the team and started playing these harder teams, we got really into it,” Barnett said.
Barnett went out for the team during her sophomore year although Sims had started a year earlier.
“Even though we might not be as talented or as good at tennis as some of the others, we still always try to be there for them,” said Barnett. “If we’re not playing, we always try to make sure we’re watching whoever else is playing and we will support them and cheer them on.”
Of Coach Sheetz, Barnett said, “She’s always been an amazing coach. She’s there for us on and off the court. She’s always so positive and kind and always has something encouraging to say to us. It was always nice to have that positive attitude with us.
“No matter how much we’d be down, [Coach Sheetz would] come tell us, ‘You’ve got it. Play your best. Just have fun,’” said Barnett.
Perhaps another secret to the team’s success is Sheetz’s commitment to prayer.
“Whenever there’s a difficult or challenging decision to be made,” said Barnett, “she always says the same thing, ‘I’m going to pray about it.’ I really respect the fact that she does. She’s very devout, and her faith is such an important part of who she is and what she projects to other people.”
Prior to every tournament, the team gathers around Sheetz for a pep talk. Then, each member shares personal prayer intentions, whether tennis-related or not, followed by a common prayer such as the Hail Mary or Our Father.
Once this season, the team spent time together in eucharistic adoration, something which the players said made a huge impact.
“Going to adoration as a team,” Sandstrom said, “brought us closer not only to God, but to each other.”
“It was really nice to be with our team in the presence of Christ and to pray to him about state — not that we’d win, but that we’d play our best and have fun,” Barnett said. “It was really great to have that connection with Christ and the team.”
When the tournament rolled around, that connection as a team was critical.
Zulueta, of whom a lot was expected because of her state championship last year, said this year’s win “was definitely more rewarding. It felt good to reach that expectation.”
And the Sheetz/Sandstrom duo that had placed seventh last year? They won the school’s first state championship in tennis doubles since 1993.
But it was freshman Grace Funk’s 10th place and the No. 2 doubles team of seniors Barnett and Sims who finished 12th that brought them home.
Without those players making it to the second day of state competition, Sheetz said, winning the state title would have been impossible.