St. Mary’s sophomore Gabriella Coronado returns a serve in the first round of the 2017 3A regional on May 5, 2017 at Memorial Park. Coronado could be St. Mary’s No. 1 singles player.

Fielding a girls' tennis team isn't the easiest thing to do at St. Mary's in Colorado Springs.

The private school's small enrollment doesn't help. Plus, the sport doesn't attract the same kind of attention or excitement soccer, basketball or softball get.

Marc Knutila knew all of this when he took over the Pirates' girls' tennis program six years ago.

That's why he couldn't be happier with what St. Mary's has already accomplished this season, boasting a junior varsity team for the second consecutive straight time.

Having more than two tennis squads is a common practice among other programs across the Pikes Peak region, but not at St. Mary's.

For now, at least.

"I'm really happy with our things are turning out," Knutila said.

But this program achievement isn't enough for the Pirates, who feature 21 players on this year's roster. They return eight varsity players, including two representing Class 3A state-qualifying doubles teams. With that kind of experience and talent, Knutila said he believes the Pirates can be "super competitive."

Once again, they have a JV team. In turn, it allows younger and more inexperienced players to grow and learn before they move up. When Knutila first took over, only 11, maybe 12, girls came out. That's barely enough for the three singles players and four doubles teams required to compete in a team match.

What changed?

"It became an awareness at the school," said Knutila. "A lot of times, tennis is one of those other sports no one really thought about. It's a small school, so everyone knows each other and they talk about having a good time playing tennis and it just caught fire."

The growth in interest is impressive considering St. Mary's has an enrollment of 254 with a little more than half being girls. The school hopes the number of tennis players keeps climbing.

One of the leaders this year is Gabbie Coronado, the team's No. 1 singles player.

She started the program with little tennis experience other than playing for fun with her family. She eventually worked up the ranks, starting at doubles before she progressed to singles matches. She has aspirations to end her high school career in the state tournament.

"To see her progression come through as a senior will be fun to watch," Knutila said.

St. Mary's also boasts two doubles teams that qualified to the state tournament last season. Those players -- juniors Monica Cichon, Lauren Sauley and Lisanne Cheatham and sophomore Jillian Kellick — are part of a group that want to make a run onto the state's biggest stage.

"In our region, we'll definitely be super competitive with all the teams here," Knutila said.

The Pirates hope to improve from last season, when they finished 4-8 overall and 1-4 in 3A Region 6. Perhaps they will, especially with the interest shown within the program in the past few years.

Chhun Sun is a sports reporter with an emphasis in preps. He joined The Gazette in April 2015 and covered public safety for three years before joining @gazettepreps staff. The Thailand-born Cambodian-American has been in journalism for nearly two decades.

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