Natchez High School senior tennis player Rashard Smith returns the tennis ball with his racquet during a team practice Tuesday afternoon at Duncan Park. (Jay Sowers \ The Natchez Democrat)
Natchez High School senior tennis player Rashard Smith returns the tennis ball with his racquet during a team practice Tuesday afternoon at Duncan Park. (Jay Sowers \ The Natchez Democrat)

Four NHS tennis players to compete for state championship

Published 12:01am Wednesday, May 1, 2013

NATCHEZ — Out of four Natchez High School tennis players headed to Thursday’s state championship, Valencia Bonds is the only one making a return trip.

Being a senior, Bonds said she’s looking to make her final trip a memorable one.

“I’ve been to state twice but have never won,” she said. “I want it very bad. This year, I want to make sure I win so I can go out on a high note.”

NHS’s Kirdis Clark takes a swing with her racquet during practice.
NHS’s Kirdis Clark takes a swing with her racquet during practice.

She and her mixed doubles partner, senior Rashaad Smith, will square off against top-notch competition in Jackson Thursday for the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A state tennis tournament. With the best players in the state as her opponents, Bonds is taking a positive approach to her final chance at a title.

“As long as we stay focused and don’t get our mind off the game, we should come out on top,” Bonds said.

Unlike Bonds, this will be Smith’s first chance at a state championship, and he said he’s not taking it for granted.

“It’s really special,” Smith said. “You hear a lot of people say there’s a lot of competition, and I’m ready for it.”

Smith said he’s not nervous, but rather, confident about going up against that competition.

“But that might change when we get there,” Smith admitted.

Valencia Barnes, center, returns a shot during a team practice. (Jay Sowers \ The Natchez Democrat)
Valencia Bonds, center, returns a shot during a team practice. (Jay Sowers \ The Natchez Democrat)

“I feel like we have a good chance. For the most part, I’m out there having fun, but I want to win, too.”

Both Bonds and Smith said they enjoy playing with each other, and Smith said their skillsets complement each other well.

“If one of us doesn’t have it, the other one does,” she said. “I have the backhand and he has the forehand, so we’re able to help each other out.”

Familiarity is also key for the duo, and Smith said they’ve been able to develop a good rapport with each other since middle school.

“We’ve been playing together since the seventh grade, so we’re good friends,” he said. “That helps out with the partnership.”

NHS’s state title hopes don’t just hinge on upperclassmen. Two eight-grade girls will compete for the girls doubles state title. Like Smith, Jaylan Grennell and Kirdis Clark are both rookies to the state tournament.

“It’s an honor to be going to state in the eighth grade,” Clark said. “If you put in all the hard work, it’s not hard (to make it as an eighth-grader). You can do it if you put your mind to it.”

Natchez High School tennis player Jaylan Grennell, center, returns a shot during practice.
Natchez High School tennis player Jaylan Grennell, center, returns a shot during practice.

Grennell said there are a lot of emotions going through her as she anticipates Thursday’s matches.

“I’m feeling pretty happy, excited (and) nervous,” Grennell said. “I expecting to see some pretty good girls doubles players.”

A lot of work with Duncan Park Tennis Director Henry Harris after school went a long way in the girls doubles partners making it so far, Grennell said.

“He tries to teach us about our weaknesses,” Grennell said. “He comes to most of our matches, so he’s able to identify our weaknesses.”

Clark said just being able to make it to state was a special experience for her and Grennell.

“We had to beat the No. 1 team in our district, Brandon,” Clark said. “It was a big accomplishment, because I think they were both seniors.”

Grennell and Clark have been playing together for two years, and they formed a natural partnership after they both chose to pick up tennis.

“We get each other,” Clark said. “We came out here and started at the same time, and we kept learning and learning and just connected when we learned. That’s what makes it special.”

The camaraderie of playing with each other has also helped the two form a close friendship.

“She’s my best friend, and she’s pretty good,” Grennell said of Clark. “She tells me what I need to work on if I mess up, and I do the same for her.”