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Royals to keep swinging her racquet for Fighting Koalas

Posted: March 15, 2011 2:12 p.m.
Updated: March 16, 2011 5:00 a.m.

There is one person whom Lydia Royals said she still cannot beat at tennis. Fortunately for the Lugoff-Elgin senior, she will not have to face that person while playing tennis for Columbia College.

Last Friday, moments after the Lady Demons’ first singles player for the past four-plus seasons signed her national letter-of-intent to continue her academic and tennis pursuits at Columbia College, Royals was asked how she received her start in the sport.

"My dad plays tennis and I told him that I wanted a racquet and he got real excited about it," Royals said with a broad smile. "So, he bought me a regular, old Wal-Mart racquet. That was when I was about eight (years old.) And, ever since then, I’ve been hitting with my dad."

That begged the obvious follow-up question, which Royals answered with a laugh.

"Can you beat your dad?" she was asked.

"No," Royals responded, without hesitation. "I’m trying, but I still can’t do it."

Unless the NAIA makes some rather drastic rule changes, Lydia Royals will not have to worry about facing her father, Wayne Royals, other than while practicing or playing a friendly family match back home. As for the competition and the challenges which she will face as a Fighting Koala, Royals said she is not totally sure what lies ahead of her. She does know she will be challenged each times she steps on the court as a college player.

"I don’t know, yet," she said when asked what the difference will be between the high school game and that at the collegiate level. "I have a feeling that the competition will be a lot harder and that I’ll be challenged more, which I look forward to."

Everything will be harder at the college level, said CC head coach Lindsey Hughes. The biggest difference which Royals and her soon-to-be freshmen teammates will experience at the next level is playing two seasons in the same academic year.

"The competition will be tougher," Hughes said. "We practice two hours a day, five days a week. We have a fall and spring season; it’s a lot longer than the high school season so, being in good shape and condition is important.

"Lydia and the rest of our girls have to come in and already be in good condition. But we’ll definitely use the fall to condition the girls more than we will use it to play matches."

While the fall and spring campaigns will be new territory to Royals, she has shown the ability to work her way through the ranks.

Royals joined the Lady Demons’ tennis program as a seventh-grader. At the time, as the team’s youngest player, a mutual decision was agreed upon by her parents and her coach that it would be best to place Royals on the junior varsity team so she could develop at her own pace with players closer to her age rather than to throw her into the fires of varsity competition.

The move paid off handsomely as, one year later, Royals began the season playing at second singles as an eighth-grader. She hardly got her feet wet there before being bumped to first singles that year by current L-E head coach Zoe Dommel, who was then in his first year at the Lady Demons’ helm.

"In eighth grade, I started out at number two, but I kept fluctuating between playing number one and two because the number one girl had back problems," Royals said of her final pre-high school year.

Since then, nobody was able to budge Royals from the first singles and first doubles slots. That, however, tells just part of the story of her impact on the L-E girls’ program said Dommel.

"She was everything to our team," Dommel said. "Lydia has been very inclusive about inviting girls to come out for the team and wanting to grow the team. I would say that it has been because of Lydia that we’ve been able to grow and get the number of kids out for the team; girls who aren’t necessarily tennis players when they come to us. But she’s willing to work with them and teach them how to play. That has meant a lot to our program."

Royals’ unselfishness and other qualities, on and off the court, were what sealed the deal for Hughes when looking for a player who would be a fit for her program.

"Lydia is a great all-court player. She has good volleys and good ground strokes. That’s exactly what we look for in a player," Hughes said of Royals.

"We play in a real tough conference so, we need someone who can play everywhere on the court. She also has good character and that is one of the first things which I look for in a player."

Dommel said character is one of Royals’ many attributes.

"Lydia is a great kid," said the L-E head coach. "She has been actively involved in the community and in helping out with the school and with our journalism department. She’s a good student with great character. She’s just a great all-around kid."

Once Hughes showed an interest in Royals, a visit to the school sealed the deal.

"I like that it’s a small school. I feel that I will be more successful in a smaller environment because it gives you a chance to get to know your teachers," she said. "Plus, I really wanted to play tennis in college and they have given me that opportunity.

"I’m just excited to start college and the fact that playing tennis is going to be incorporated into that … there’s not another way that I would want to do this."

Some next season, the Fighting Koalas will join the Appalachian Athletic Conference. Once in that league, Hughes said Royals and her new teammates will face stiff competition.

"We play in a tough conference against a lot of teams who are nationally ranked. It’s good for the girls," Hughes said. "It gives them something to build on and if they are competitive, it gives them something to work harder for."

On this day, it was hard for Royals to collect herself as the letter-of-intent was placed in front of her to sign. After, she was relieved that the deal had been cemented.

"I’m pretty nervous. I was nervous about signing that piece of paper so, I’m going to be nervous about playing the matches, as well," she said with a smile. "I think I’m more excited because now it’s official. I know I’m going to Columbia College."

Dommel, for one, would like nothing better than to see the only first singles player she has known at L-E, return to the school upon graduating from Columbia College with her degree in education and continue to do the job which she started during her five years with the tennis program.

"I want Lydia to learn more things about tennis so that, hopefully, she can bring her knowledge back to a small community like Lugoff-Elgin and help grow the sport and learn something about coaching the kids," Dommel said of her hopes for Royals’ future. "That would be wonderful."

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