Among their teammates, Heather Drakulich and Mickie Brennan are known as “the closers.”

The tennis partners were the last of the team Lava Love members still on the court at the U.S. Tennis Association sectional tournament finals in Sunriver this July. Their teammates had won one of their doubles matches against their Portland-area opponent and lost the other, putting all the pressure on Drakulich and Brennan to win the third and earn a trip to nationals.

They lost the first set, then regained some momentum in the second. But the other members of their eight-woman team said they had little doubt the closers could put it away in the third and give them a reason to pop the Champagne their cheering section had brought to the match.

“When you’ve played tennis as long as we have all played tennis, you have a lot of tools in your toolbox, and you learn when to use the tools that you have at the right time,” team captain Char Anderson said last week. “Mickie and Heather know how to adjust. This isn’t working? They’re beating us on this? We’ve got to change it up. As casual players, you don’t do that.”

The closers did indeed close out the final tiebreak set — Drakulich said she knew they had their opponents on the ropes when they started bickering — and she and her teammates on the women’s 55+ 9.0 team became the first of three Athletic Club of Bend-based teams to qualify for a USTA national tournament this fall. Their championship will be held at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Florida, from Nov. 17 to 19.

“It took me what, 23 years, playing on all kinds of teams,” to qualify for nationals, said Karen Kress, another Lava Love player. “I was actively trying, getting so close, but never making it.”

All eight members of the team, which also includes Val Rekward, Linda Thorsen, Raegan Ferguson and part-time Bend resident Sheryl Fewkes, are between the ages of 56 and 65 and are 4.5-rated players. (The National Tennis Ratings Program grades players from 1.0 for complete beginners to 7.0, indicating a professional player.

In 9.0 doubles tournaments such as July’s sectionals, the combined ranking of the two partners must equal 9.0.) The Athletic Club of Bend 8.0 mixed doubles 40+ team also won their sectional tournament and will play at their national championship in Mobile, Alabama, this weekend, while the women’s 4.0 40+ team finished second in their flight at the national tournament in Orlando last month.

Before this summer, it had been several years since a Central Oregon team had qualified for a USTA national tournament, and Anderson said having three teams from one club win sectional titles in a given year is highly unusual for any club.

“Bend is small,” Anderson said. “When you look at Portland and Seattle, and even Spokane (Washington), they’re much bigger tennis communities. So it’s a pretty big deal.”

The ACB teams are also smaller than many of their competitors, which sometimes carry as many as 15 players, despite the fact that only six are needed to compete in a matchup.

“Last time we played Northern California in nationals, they flew in new players every day,” Drakulich said. “They had new, fresh players come in. And meanwhile we played three hours (the day before), we’re slogging it in.”

The current Lava Love players formed a team a little over a year ago, soon after Lee Whitwell, a native of Gibraltar and former touring professional with a sly sense of humor, joined the tennis staff at ACB. Whitwell likes to joke that Kress was the first Pan-Am flight attendant (not true, for the record — Kress became a flight attendant long after cabins became pressurized) and that “If your mother was born in Bend, Mickie delivered her” (an exaggeration, although Brennan was a nurse-midwife whose tennis teams often showed up at the hospital waiting room to whisk her to a tournament after a delivery). The team trains with Whitwell once a week, and then works on her “homework assignments” on their own up to six days a week.

“And we’re always joking, because if we do something we know we shouldn’t do, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m glad Lee’s not here, she would yell at us,’” Ferguson joked.

Despite the good-natured teasing — or perhaps because of it — Drakulich said Whitwell has “breathed fresh life” into their program.

“She’s inspired us,” Anderson said. “You can tell — we all respond well to her sense of humor and her drive. We’ve played for so long, and she’s bringing new ideas to our game, and that’s a wonderful thing. That makes us able to do things we never thought about doing.”

Several Lava Love players said part of the appeal of a USTA league team is the fact that they did not have many opportunities to play team sports as girls or young women. Title IX, a federal law mandating equal access to educational programs (including school sports) for boys and girls was passed in 1972, when most of the team members were already in their late teens and early 20s. Anderson said she was allowed to play high school tennis on the boys team, but Brennan missed out altogether.

“Tennis was my first experience with a team,” Brennan said. “You think about the young girls out there playing soccer or volleyball, there wasn’t any of that (for me). There was nothing. And so we get to go play — it’s joyful.”

And some of her teammates, including her doubles partner, just thrive on competition.

“I still want to get better, even though I’m 60,” Drakulich said. “When I play people who are better than me, it makes me want to get better. I don’t like to lose.”

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