By Gabriel Stovall
McDONOUGH, Ga. — Shhhhh.
Whatever you do, don’t say the “C” word around Jamie Bullington, because the Eagle’s Landing High girls’ tennis coach is making sure he’s not saying it around his undefeated team.
“Oh no, we’re not even talking about championships yet,” said Bullington, who literally bristled at the mentioning of the word.
“We’re not even talking about region championships. We’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do still in the regular season. We have another match with Locust Grove (Friday) and then region tournament next week, so we still have more work to do.”
And apparently that mentality has rubbed off on several of his best players, because they’re not interested in any championship talk either.
“We don’t talk about it because I think we’re just trying to focus on what we need to do individually,” said sophomore Brooke Amero. “We’re just trying to build ourselves up as a team so that when we reach these tournaments that we know we’ll need to do well in, we’ll just work on what we need to work on instead of focusing on the title of champion and all of that.”
But that doesn’t mean the Golden Eagles are not championship conscious, though. Fellow sophomore and Bullington’s No. 1 player Morgan Cage says the desire to win is, indeed, there. It’s just that they’re learning to put it in proper perspective.
“You know, we usually just try to keep our heads because we don’t want to be egotistical,” Cage said. “We just try to stay humble, because when you get to that egotistical point, you don’t try as hard. We wanna win region and we want to win state. But we know we’ve got a new team, and once we get everything together, it’s going to be awesome.”
And when Cage says new, she means it.
Bullington has not one senior on this year’s squad, one year removed from reaching the state tournament’s Elite Eight round. A good chunk of that team has graduated, including standout Jessica Amero. And Bullington himself is in his first year as head coach, despite having coached at the school in some form since 1999.
But the youth of the current version of Lady Eagles tennis has shown no signs of let up. Eagle’s Landing is currently 8-0 ahead of next week’s region tournament which begins on Wednesday. And while Bullington compares this team favorably to some of the best he’s seen at Eagle’s Landing. He also believes this current bunch has more upside.
“I think it was the 2011 or 2012 team — after a while they just all kind of run together — that was one of our best,” Bullington said. “But this team top to bottom is more talented than that one was.”
Which, again, means absolutely nothing right now when considering the grand scheme of things, especially given the fact that the postseason has yet to begin.
“I constantly remind them that they haven’t done anything special yet,” Bullington said. “We haven’t done anything, and we could go into the region tournament next week and fall flat on our face and lose.”
Bullington has seen that song and dance before, and he’s had to deal with the harsh reality of seeing the music stop prematurely.
“The 2006 team was very, very good,” he said. “We went into the region tournament and took forgranted a team that we’d already beaten. We lost to them and didn’t even qualify for state. Those things hurt a team, and I don’t want to relive them again.”
The presence of Cage, a talented transfer from Duluth, along with fellow top performer Evette Martinez and Amero are helping to make sure — at least from a talent standpoint — that such a deja vu moment is unlikely to recur.
Cage said she’s especially happy to be on the other side of the net with Amero, a player she’s known through competition even before coming to Eagle’s Landing.
“When I first moved here, I was kind of scared, because moving is always new and stuff like that,” Cage said. “But when I found out Brooke Amero played here, that gave me hope. I’d known her from tournaments and things like that, and she was one of the only people I knew when I first got here. Knowing she was on the team gave me a lot of confidence, and made me think we’d have a good season.
“It’s always good now to have her on the same team now. It makes us both better, and I like that.”
Amero’s feelings about Cage are mutual.
“It’s really great to have her on the team,” Amero said. “She has definitely stepped up the level of our team, and provided a level of good practice, and she’s just great.”
And its the rigor of those intrasquad battles — no disrespect to the other opponents they’ve faced — that truly has been the chief sharpening tool for this team.
“We’re all our best competition,” Cage said. “We love to push each other. We come out here every day and play so hard and drill so hard against each other, and things like that. It’s the best thing we can do to become a better team.”