GARDINER — It’ll be a season for growth and acclimating for many tennis teams this season. The Gardiner and Winthrop girls teams are no exception.

The teams met in their opener Thursday, with Winthrop coming away with a 3-2 victory. It was the formal return to competition for both teams after last spring was lost to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s really nice. I’m so glad we got to have a real season this year, because the basketball and the field hockey seasons were modified,” said Winthrop’s Hannah Duley, who earned a 6-0, 6-0 win at No. 2 singles. “Besides the masks and everything, the rules are fairly simple. It’s great. I think it’s really normal. I feel like it’s the most normal we’re going to get for a while.”

The Ramblers also got a 6-1, 6-2 victory from Muriel Lattin at No. 3 singles and a 6-4, 6-0 win at No. 2 doubles from Caraline Squires and Emma Shuman. The Tigers got a 6-3, 6-3 win at No. 1 singles from Lindsey Bell and a 6-3, 6-2 win from the team of Ashlynn Harrington and Haylie Peacock at first doubles.

“Everybody’s just really excited to be out here, and it really shows,” Winthrop coach Jess Merrill said. “They’re excited, they’re eager, and it’s been really fun so far.”

For the Ramblers and Tigers, the first match was the beginning of what will be a season-long learning process. Only three players — Bell, No. 1 singles opponent Kerrigan Anuszewski, and Duley — who stepped on the court Thursday had played in varsity matches before.

“It’s what we’re dealt with and what we have to battle through,” said Merrill, who also had new players at No. 1 doubles in Olivia Wells and Libby Vance. “Every day has been a great learning experience for them, and this was a good learning experience for them there. They just have great attitudes, it’s been great working with them. They’re not nervous to play. I’m not sure if it’s just because of that inexperience, they just don’t know what it is to be nervous.”

Harrington and Peacock are new to the varsity ladder for Gardiner, as are Mackenzie Curran at second singles, Megan Ladner at third singles and the second doubles pair of Cassidy Clark and Morgan Millett.

“It’s way faster than my freshman year,” Harrington said. “It’s way faster. It’s a lot more fun, but it is really difficult because we missed out on that year of practicing. But again, other schools are in the position we are. … I’m definitely rusty, but it’s been fun getting back out there again.”

Gardiner coach Patrick Quinn said the lack of experience showed itself at times Thursday.

Gardiner second singles Mackenzie Curran follows through on a shot during a season-opening tennis match Thursday against Winthrop in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“We’re not strong enough to hit backhands against the wind, so when the ball’s hit, we’ve got to get back faster so we can get around those shots,” he said. “But they all played hard, and I think there’s a lot of stuff that we did well. But we’ve got some stuff to work on.”

Quinn said Bell has been helping her teammates get the hang of playing in bigger spots.

“She’s doing a great job on the teaching side,” he said. “She teaches a lot of the younger kids. (She’s a) coach on the court, very much. We’ll break off in twos, and I’ll take half, she’ll take half.”

Bell, who made the Round of 48 in the state singles tournament as a sophomore, was looking strong Thursday. Winthrop’s Anuszewski battled her with long volleys and trailed both sets only 4-3, but Bell showed a finishing touch.

“She plays a good game. She keeps the ball in, it’s hard to beat her on the baseline game. She gets it back in play,” Bell said. “I took a step back and kind of played that game with her, tired each other out and kind of played the long game.”

As for her other role on the team, Bell said she’s got advice for her teammates.

“Hit a lot of balls,” she said. “That’s the key to learning the game and getting better at the game. Just hit as many balls as you can.”

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