SOUTH PORTLAND — A cold wind may be gusting all the way from Mt. Washington. The background may be filled with enormous green oil tanks. The as-yet-unpainted surface may be black as charcoal.
Even so, the boys and girls of the South Portland High tennis teams care not a whit. After an extended period of school construction swallowed up their old courts, the Red Riots are nomads no more. They have seven spanking new courts to call their own.
“It was very weird to not have a home,” said Danielle Proctor, who is moving to second singles after playing first doubles last year.
“This year it’s a lot more convenient,” said her old partner, Michelle Foster, slated to play first singles. “I love the courts. They’re so nice.”
Demolition of the old courts, originally scheduled for halfway through the 2012 season, actually began between the regular season and playoffs that spring. The coaches went so far as setting up a phone tree to let everyone know whether the courts would be available from one day to the next.
Last year the teams practiced in Cape Elizabeth (after the Capers finished their own workout) or on the three courts on Portland’s Eastern Promenade, which is where South Portland “hosted” its home matches.
“It was an interesting dynamic,” said Ian Mitchell, who will play first singles for the South Portland boys. “When you play someone in Portland, they get to your home court before you do.”
Sure, the views of the islands and sailboats were lovely, the warmup runs down to the cannons and back were fun, and being in the midst of a public park provided for plenty of people-watching. But squeezing five matches into three courts often took hours, particularly if those matches lasted three sets.
“We were at the Eastern Prom until 9 p.m. many nights,” said girls’ coach Elizabeth Scifres, in her 15th season. “We’d have parents saying, ‘Do you think we need to pull the cars up and turn the lights on?’ ”
Scifres has always maintained a no-cut policy and some years has more than 40 girls in her program. Last spring’s roster fell into the teens.
“I’m super happy to say that this year numbers are back up and I feel that community sense again,” she said. “They’ve already had a full team dinner. We’ve already had lots of chances for senior-led discussions, around odd rules you should be aware of and how to stay focused when you might have difficult spectators.”
Tom Hyland, who teaches English and history in the Learning Alternatives program, no longer has to race from his last class to make a 2:10 bus departure, giving him 10 minutes for the transition.
“It was really stressful,” said Hyland, entering his seventh season as the boys’ coach. “But I think the kids did a great job. They were resilient and they went along with it. We had a smaller team last year as a result, I think, but they handled the situation well. We had a decent season.”
Both teams were seeded 10th in Western Class A and lost their preliminary-round matches, the girls to Sanford and the boys to Biddeford. This year they expect more, if only because the simple act of crossing a parking lot to practice rather than riding a bus across a bridge makes a world of difference, said Tyler Gagne, who will play second singles.
“To be able to walk out here and be like, ‘This is my court. This is my place.’ ” Gagne said, “it’s such a good feeling.”
The daily bus rides weren’t all bad, Gagne said. They encouraged a certain we’re-in-this-together bonding. It was not unlike the Portland Pirates, the local professional hockey team that moved its season to Lewiston because of renovations to the Cumberland County Civic Center and a contentious lease-extension negotiation.
“I sympathize with them,” Hyland said of the Pirates, who won more on the road than they did in Lewiston. “As a team, you’re homeless.”
It wasn’t only South Portland’s high school tennis players affected by the demolition of their seven courts. The entire community felt their loss, depriving children of a popular recreation program and adults of a place to play.
“When you drive by here in the summer,” Scifres said, “these courts are usually full.”
This spring the girls SMAA doubles tournament and the boys MPA singles tournament qualifying will return to South Portland. Once the weather gets warmer, paint will be applied to the surface. There will be blue inside the lines and green outside, similar to the color scheme at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
“We were going through something together and it was beyond our control,” Hyland said. “You have to deal with that stuff. You can’t fret about it. And I didn’t hear any complaining. They just accepted it.
“That’s a good thing for high school kids. We’re teaching them a whole lot more than tennis.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: