SOUTH CHINA — An Erskine Academy senior, Morgaine Kmen worked her way into the starting lineup for the tennis team last season. A freshman, Julia Barber had never played tennis before joining the Eagles this spring. Turns out, the veteran and the rookie went together like chocolate and peanut butter.

“Julia and I just clicked as a doubles team. We were like, maybe this is going to be a good fit if we play together. It just really worked out well from the beginning,” Kmen said.

Erskine’s Morgaine Kmen returns the ball during warms-up on Thursday at the school in South China. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Coach Ryan Nored paired Kmen and Barber at second doubles early in the season, and the duo quickly became a consistent force for the Eagles. On Tuesday, Kmen and Barber helped Erskine win its first regional tennis title, earning a 6-3, 6-2 win over Waterville’s second doubles team of Jasmine Liberty and Hannah Hubbard. The Eagles will face Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference rival Lincoln Academy in the state championship Saturday at 12:45 p.m. at Lewiston High School.

Kmen and Barber went 7-2 in the regular season, then won all three of their matches in the Class B North playoffs, beating Foxcroft Academy and Ellsworth before the win over Waterville in the regional final. Pairing the experienced Kmen and novice Barber was an easy choice, Nored said, in part due to Kmen’s leadership.

“She’s one of the all-time best leaders I’ve ever had,” Nored said. “They’re a natural pairing. Morgaine’s sort of calm demeanor and perfect leadership, and Julia’s athleticism, they work well together.”

Kmen was eager to have Barber as a playing partner.

“I really feel like everyone who comes through here, just because of the atmosphere of the team and how supportive we are, it really doesn’t matter what grade level you are. I was actually really excited because I know Julia. She’s super athletic. She’s super nice, and she’s fun to work with,” Kmen said.

Barber picked up a tennis racket for the first time when the Eagles began preseason practices. Her athleticism and eagerness to learn made Barber a quick study, Nored said.

“Julia’s one of the school’s best freshmen athletes. She’s so athletic she just picked it up right away,” Nored said.

Barber said playing with Kmen sped up the learning process.

“I watched tennis on TV, and it looked fun, so I decided to start playing,” Barber said. “She’s been a big help. She taught me so much that’s really helpful when I’m playing tennis and she’s just such a good mentor for me.”

Erskine’s Julia Barber keeps her eyes on the ball during practice Thursday at the school in South China. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

Kmen and Barber played together for the first time against Maine Central Institute in Erskine’s third match of the season. They won, 6-3, 6-3, the first of four consecutive wins together.

“They had a couple tight matches at the beginning of the year,” Nored said. “I can’t complain about the way they’ve played together. Their biggest strength is their willingness to be coached. Both of them understand their weaknesses, but are willing to try different things, different strategies, against different teams. And that’s kept them where they are.”

Only one of Kmen and Barber’s victories went to three sets, a 2-6, 7-6, 7-6 win over Gardiner. In that match, among others, Kmen and Barber feel they showcased their biggest skill, communication.

“We’re being like, hey, what works here and what doesn’t work? Just talking it through until we get it down,” Kmen said.

Saturday’s Class B state championship will be the last time Kmen and Barber will play as Erskine doubles teammates. Kmen sees a ton of potential in her partner, and offered sound advice on improvement to Barber.

“Just hit over the summer as much as you can. It’s such a fun sport. It’s easy to play. So if you enjoy it, just play. You’ll get better at it,” Kmen said.

Added Barber: “My forehand has gotten a lot better, and my backhand has improved so much.”

When Erskine and Lincoln met in the regular season, Kmen and Barber fell 1-6, 5-7. It was the only loss to a Class B opponent for the pair (Kmen and Barber also fell to Class A Brunswick). Knowing it’s their final match together, Kmen and Barber hope it’s their best.

Erskine’s Julia Barber returns the ball during practice Thursday at the school in South China. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

“Lincoln’s good. They’ve improved but so have we,” Kmen said.

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