MADISON — The players and coaches on the Madison Area Memorial High School girls tennis team were hanging around the parking lot after a match three weeks ago when the discussion turned to nicknames. A few ideas were offered up for consideration.

Senior Jenna Davis had the winner.

“Jenna ends up coming up with us being the ‘Furious Five,'” coach Jason Newell said. “It kind of stuck. Anytime there’s a photo or any post online, it’s always been the ‘Furious Five.'”

It’s not a label to describe a group of seniors on the Madison roster. Or a rotation of singles players. It’s the whole team. In a sport in which a team needs seven players to compete for each available point in a match, Madison only has five, meaning each second doubles match is an automatic loss by default before the Bulldogs and their opponent even take the court.

It should be a blow to any team’s competitive hopes. And yet, in Madison, it hasn’t mattered. The Bulldogs have become one of the best teams in the Mountain Valley Conference and Class C’s South region, and they’ve done it with one hand tied behind their back.

“I don’t think there was really a time where I was like ‘Oh no, we have five people, what are we going to do?'” said No. 2 singles player and junior Breanna Kanagy. “It’s kind of just been like ‘Okay, this is what we’ve got. We’re going to work with it.’ And we have.”

Teams in Madison’s situation aren’t unheard of — Presque Isle’s girls team has five players as well, and Sumner even reached the boys Class C state final in 2000 before recruiting a baseball and track athlete in order to compete in all five matches — but they’re rarely successful. The Bulldogs, however, have rolled, going 9-1 to reach the MVC championship game and head into the C South playoffs with the region’s third seed.

And yet, the record has done little to stop the trend. Teams see Madison show up with five players — singles players Kanagy, Jillian Holden and Caitlyn Morgan and doubles tandem Davis and Kynsey Hibbard — and, realizing there aren’t more coming, start to chatter amongst themselves. Some snicker and point. Others sympathize with what must be a team struggling just to get by.

Madison tennis players Breanna Kanagy, left, and Kynsey Hibbard practice Wednesday in Madison. Staff photo by David Leaming

Newhall hears it. And before handing that team a 3-2 or 4-1 loss, his players do too.

“Oh, definitely. As soon as we walk onto the court they’re like ‘Oh, you only have five girls,’ ” Holden, a senior and the team’s No. 1 player, said. “Well, true, but we do very well.”

“If anything, I think they use it as fuel,” Newhall said. “I think when a team is faced with adversity of any type, they have two options. They can let it break them and use it as an excuse or a crutch, or they can use it as fuel. And that’s essentially what they did.”

These sorts of roster constraints aren’t new. Madison had a larger roster last year, but two seniors graduated and a player expected back didn’t return, combining with low turnout to suddenly put the Bulldogs below the threshold of a full lineup.

“It was really frustrating because we were working hard to convince other girls to play, and some would say they were going to play and end up falling through with that,” said Morgan, a senior who went from No. 1 to No. 3 singles after returning from a torn ACL suffered during soccer season. “So it was difficult, and I was worried that we wouldn’t have enough for a first doubles team.”

The Bulldogs tried everything. Newhall extended signups through spring vacation. He asked his players to try to get their friends to join. They went to work trying to find someone, anyone willing to play.

Madison’s Jenna Davis practices Wednesday in Madison. Staff photo by David Leaming

Eventually, Newell had to break down the situation for his team. No one else was coming. They were it. And they were going to have to make it work.

“I said ‘Girls, we have two options,'” Newhall said. “‘Either we let it define us for the good, or define us for the bad.'”

At first, his team was skeptical. But after wins over Hall-Dale (3-2) and Lisbon (4-1), the Bulldogs saw that their mix could work.

“I think when we got to, like, (2-0), I thought ‘Wow, we are going to have a really good season, and we are going to be able to make it work,'” Morgan said.

It hasn’t been easy. With so few players, Newhall is limited in terms of what drills he can have his team do during practice. Sometimes, due to family and work commitments, as few as two players show up to those practices. And when the matches come, the players know the pressure is on. A loss means Madison has to sweep the remaining matches just to sneak away with a 3-2 win.

“There’s definitely nervousness,” Kanagy said. “It’s hard to play when you’re nervous and pressured, but I have a great team that encourages me, so it’s a lot easier to get through that.”

Newhall said the stakes are high, but that his players have embraced them.

“These five respond very well to the pressure,” he said. “They like it better, I find in matches where the opponent’s good, all five of them play their best tennis.”

In one of the team’s biggest matches, that poise under pressure became evident. Madison and Winthrop were tied at 2-2, and with a spot in the MVC title game at stake, the match came down to Holden in the top spot.

Newhall knew he had a good player for the situation.

“I said ‘Look, there’s nobody else in this spot I want other than you,'” he said. “‘You can handle the pressure, you’re an elite athlete, go handle the pressure.’ And she played her best match I’ve ever seen in four years of coaching her.”

Holden won the match, sealing a 3-2 decision over the Ramblers and another win in a season that, in itself, has felt like a victory.

“We really knew what we had to do, and we got it done,” Holden said. “(Newhall) knew we only had five girls, we knew it, and we knew whatever happens, happens.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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