A new standard has been set for Dawson County tennis as Savanna Kennedy became the first student to sign a scholarship to play tennis at the college level. The soon-to-be high school graduate will continue her playing career at Piedmont College in the fall.
“Mid-junior year, right before the season started, I was like I want to play college tennis,” Kennedy said. “I’m not ready to quit tennis after high school. So that’s where my ambition started.”
Along the way, Kennedy always set goals for herself.
Freshman year, her goal was to play varsity. Mission accomplished.
Sophomore year, her goal was to be first singles. Mission accomplished.
And now her goal of playing college tennis has also been accomplished.
“(My teammates) led me to reach my goals and work harder,” said Kennedy about her time on the Dawson County tennis team. “And then my coaches really, really helped me. Practice every day, (they) pushed me harder and without them, we wouldn’t have this.”
The decision on where to attend college came down to a couple schools, but as soon as Kennedy visited Piedmont, she knew that’s where she wanted to be.
“Just looking at their campus was amazing and meeting their coaches and some of the professors and the tennis team. Just everything,” said Kennedy about what finalized her decision. “The people that are there that make Piedmont really pushed my decision (towards them).”
Off the court, Kennedy also excels as a student. As a Division III school, Piedmont is unable to offer scholarships based purely on athletics, so Kennedy’s scholarship comes from academics to help offset the athletic costs.
“If she didn’t have that (academic) piece, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Head Girls Tennis Coach Stephanie Gibbs. “That speaks volumes of her work ethic.”
Gibbs also spoke about the growth of the tennis program over the four years Kennedy was at the school. Her freshman year, Dawson County had four courts with no lights. That has since doubled to eight courts with lights.
The Lady Tigers made four straight trips to the state tournament with Kennedy on the team, and for the first time since Gibbs became the coach, Dawson County had enough players to field a junior varsity team this year.
Because of Kennedy’s skill set, she would often practice with the boys to face opponents that hit a little harder, which helped to improve her game. In fact, according to Gibbs, when girls first join the team, they’re always a little bit intimidated to hit with Kennedy because she does hit with so much power. But being the teammate that she is, Kennedy always made time to hit with one of her Lady Tiger teammates should they be up for the challenge.
“Even though she could be working on her game, playing a couple courts down with the boys or whomever,” Gibbs said. “She was always willing to come back and hit with somebody that was just kind of teetering on getting better, and not braggadocios at all about her abilities.
“She’s just a really good encourager.”
Kennedy’s first coach was Peter Hill, a self-taught tennis player who works as an architect, who she met by complete chance while hitting balls at the local park. Kennedy was in the eighth grade, practicing for when she could try out for the high school team when Hill showed up with a ball machine. Kennedy and her friend, who she was with at the time, begged him for lessons. Hesitant at first since he only taught himself to play by watching the pros on TV, Kennedy persisted and Hill finally gave in, setting the course for Kennedy’s success.
“He’s very, very good,” said Nancy Kennedy, Savanna’s mother. “He taught her the basic strokes. He taught her the goal setting that goes with tennis. That was just amazing and just kind of put it to her. You know, there’s a difference between a four-hour serve and a forty-hour serve. As she upped her goals, she needed to up the hours on the court and that’s how I think she got better.
“He helped her understand that relationship between time on the court and your goals. That was huge. That was pretty much her start and then she got in with the school and the school coaches took her from there.”
Hill worked with Kennedy from the time they met when she was in eighth grade through her sophomore year of high school and was a huge part of her success according to anyone you ask, including her father, who said he couldn’t believe where the time had gone.
“I mean it’s like a blur,” Scott Kennedy said. “She was this big, swatting at butterflies and now here we are.
“The support of this community and this school. And like I said, Mr. Hill, he taught her what I told her, don’t let anybody take anything from you. If that’s what you want, you can obtain it. It’s not going to be easy but if you work for it, you can do anything you want to do, so here we are.”