A league of their own

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 1, 2014

SALISBURY — Doubles partners Peggy Godley and Barbara Atwell found themselves in a dogfight.
Games in the first set were tied 6-6, but they led the tiebreaker 5-2 against Highland Creek’s Donna Werner and Danielle Sweet.
Several long rallies ensued, but a ball over the end line gave Godley and Atwell a 7-4 tiebreaker win and the set. They knew the morning was just beginning.
“We like marathons,” Godley said, switching ends of the court. “We want to get our money’s worth.”
Since 1991, women in Salisbury and throughout the region have participated in the Piedmont Interclub Tennis League for 10-week periods in the spring and fall. More than 300 women representing 10 clubs and 36 total teams play at varying skill levels from Salisbury to Charlotte.
The individual matches are always games of doubles played on six different courts, meaning each team brings 12 players to a contest.
Salisbury alone is home base for four teams — two operating out of the County Club of Salisbury and two more out of Catawba College.
Godley and Atwell play for Catawba Racquet Club 2, which had a home match at the college courts Monday morning.
You might think weekly tennis matches in a league generously filled with mothers and grandmothers are just an excuse to make friends, go out to lunch, travel to other cities and socialize.
And that’s partly right. But the women participants also love the sport, play regularly outside the league and, no matter what their skill level, are in it to win it.
When the competitive juices flow, things can become testy among opposing players.
“There’s trash talk among middle-aged women, too,” said Melissa Utley, owner of the Dairy Queen on West Innes Street.
Teresa Yokeley of Lexington approaches it this way: “It’s competitive, not personal,” she said. “There’s a difference in being competitive and just being rude.”
Catawba Racquet Club 2 captain Mary Miller James asks Penny Roemer to read the league’s mission statement to players from both sides before each contest, just as a reminder to be good sports.
“Our philosophy,” Roemer recited Monday morning, “is one which will foster respect, cooperation, good communication, good sportsmanship and goodwill among the players, the teams, the captains and professionals, and one which will inspire pride and integrity within our overall program.”
Roemer, 76, is a founding member of the league, which was planned and organized in 1991 by Jack Thompson and Laura Ballantine, who were tennis pros at the Salisbury Country Club and Cabarrus Country Club, respectively.
Roemer has been playing since the league’s inception.
“Who knew it would grow?” said co-captain Roemer, who also served as team captain for 16 to 17 years. “It’s been marvelous.”
The cold, ice and snow played havoc with this spring’s schedule, and only Monday’s make-up match with Highland Creek (a club in the university area of Charlotte) has put the Catawba team back on schedule, with six Wednesday matches remaining.
The schedule calls for each team to play five away matches and five home.
Teams arrived at least a half-hour before the match started Monday to warm up.
James and Roemer then gathered all the players together for a brief 9:30 meeting. James gave the lay of the land, in terms of how the courts are numbered, where the bathrooms were located and a reminder that players are penalized if their cellphones go off during a match.
Before the players scattered, Lisa Turley of the Highland Creek team passed out black hand towels as gifts. The towels were embossed with information about her realty office.
“Have fun, you all,” Roemer said, heading downhill to Court 6. Within a minute, Roemer was laughing, trudging up the hill.
She had left her racquet back where the players’ meeting was held.
“I actually thought I’d just come and watch,” she said.
The next couple of hours were filled with the sounds you’d expect to hear on tennis courts: balls ripping into the net cord, rattling off fences, hitting the sweet spots of racquets and skimming past the end lines.
The people sounds were there, too. The grunts, groans, yells, whispers — words of praise and encouragement, balanced by self-assessments, such as “crappy shot.”
Some matches ended quickly, giving players from both winning and losing teams a longer chance to enjoy pimento cheese sandwiches, bananas and pecan muffins, baked by Jan Matthews of Lexington.
Roemer and her doubles partner, Jane Brittain, went down in defeat in straight sets.
“Penny, how did you do?” Atwell asked from her court.
“You want me to shout it out?” Roemer asked, before going up to the fence and whispering the result.
James couldn’t hide her disappointment from seeing her own final shot fail.
“Big fat loser!” she announced, smiling and walking back to the women already finished. “Last shot, last game, last match, the set!”
Shirley Rice succinctly summed up her match.
“We had our clocks cleaned,” she said.
The Salisbury women like to go out to lunch, especially after home matches. The restaurants usually are Sweet Meadow, Village Inn, Emma’s or Utley’s Dairy Queen.
“I love this,” said Utley, a high school tennis player who started playing again 10 years ago.
Other teammates have similar stories — of taking up tennis again, or for the first time.
Yokeley, a Lexington grandmother of three, gave up playing coed softball in 2007 and took up tennis.
“I thought this was safer,” she said. “At least you don’t have men swarming at your head.”
But Yokeley rolled her ankle in her doubles win Wednesday with Sherry Snider, and she iced it down while having some snacks.
“Hey, I’m a cripple,” Yokeley shouted toward the muffins. “Will you bring me one? I love the attention. I don’t get this at home.”
With Snider’s encouragement, Yokeley took a lot of lessons and played tennis every chance. Now she’s one of the best players on the Catawba Racquet Club team. She and Snider also play for U.S. Tennis Association teams in Winston-Salem.
Price moved to Salisbury from Louisville in 2006. She also had never played tennis — field hockey and soccer had been her sports.
Now she can’t get enough.
“I like exercise,” she said. I play five times a week, twice a day sometimes. I’m always happy if I’m outside.”
Price became fast friends with her tennis buddies. They play cards and go to the beach together, and overall, tennis made the move to North Carolina go much easier.
Nancy Graham, who has played pretty much since the league was formed, helped stir Price’s passion in tennis.
Graham comes from a strong tennis family, and “I might be the one who plays the most,” she said.
She hopes to have her little grandchildren playing soon.
Graham has been the doubles partner of Utley this spring. For close to 20 years, her regular playing partner was Brenda Goodman.
As predicted, the match involving Godley and Atwell took two hours to finish and was the last one of the day. They claimed a victory, meaning the morning ended in a tie. Each team won three matches.
Before heading for lunch, James and the Highland Creek captain make sure the tie is recorded.
But James and her teammates will tell you — an outright win would have felt much better.
“You should have been here when we swept the courts last time,” James said.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.