The vision for Hixson High School tennis coach Raul Fernandez isn't quite complete, but there's certainly a lot more clarity than there was five years ago.
The next step in reviving the Hixson program will begin today, as the Wildcats will be one of seven area programs among the 32 participating in the Rotary Tennis Invitational, starting at 8:30 this morning. The Wildcats, along with Signal Mountain's boys, will be in the B division at McCallie, while Signal's and Chattanooga Christian's girls will be in the B division at GPS.
Baylor, GPS and McCallie are in the A division at Baylor. The tournament, which is entering its 58th year, lasts two days and is regarded as one of the best in-season tournaments in the South, featuring both individual and team state champions from Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky. It will be a new experience for the Wildcats, but one they are excited about.
"There are definitely going to be some great teams there, and we're going to face some big challenges and great teams that we haven't faced yet," Hixson sophomore Alex Condra said Thursday. "If we go in with our head on, we think we can pull a learning experience out of it.
"Coach told us there are lots of good teams and lots of teams stronger than anyone we're played so far, but if we're strong on doubles -- because of what he's taught us -- we think we can pull some wins out."
Fernandez got the ball rolling on trying to get his team in the field last season and was put on the waiting list. He had thought it would be another year before Hixson was invited and was pleasantly surprised when he received a call asking if he wanted his team to participate in 2014.
He hopes for a good learning experience for a team that includes a senior, a junior and six sophomores in his top eight.
"I don't know what to expect with it being my first time there," Fernandez said. "I just want my kids to play how I've taught them. If we sneak a point here or there, awesome, but I'm really in it for next year because we have loads of sophomores.
"This is such a prestigious thing that it was a good feeling to get asked. We're a public school with a pretty good tennis team. I hoped the day would come that we'd get here [as a program], and I kind of had an idea someday that we'd become pretty good, but we got lucky that last year that four freshmen came in and they were good already. A little molding and they could be good by the time they're seniors."
Sophomore Richard Vuong said the invitation to the tournament shows a lot of people that "we're here."
"This gives me and our team another challenge and something to improve on," Vuong said. "We can do something; we're not what everybody thinks, and maybe we're even better than them. If we won some matches, that's great, but for me personally, I want to win all or at least a majority of my matches.
"I think that would be a good weekend."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6311. Follow him at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.