High Fives 2nd in nation

In 2013, Dana Forsyth, a teaching pro at Cedar Bluff Racquet Club, noticed she had several 8-year-olds in her clinics with excellent tennis acumen and ability. This was the start of the High Fives in USTA Junior Team Tennis.

Forsyth coached the team for several years, winning five of seven state titles — and once placing third in Sectional play.

Three of those 8-year-olds, having been crowned as TSSAA tennis state champions in high school, finished as national runner-up among the six-member High Fives during 18 Years and Under National Team Tennis Championships in Orlando Oct. 6-9.

“It was unbelievable; the kids fought hard,” said High Fives coach Derek Stultz, a teaching pro at CBRC who took over when JTT started back in ’21 after shutting down in ’20 due to COVID.

It consisted of Riley Cassity (Division I-AAA state champion with Farragut in 2022 now a junior), Allie Faulkner (two-time Division II-A singles state champion now a sophomore at Christian Academy of Knoxville), Eleni Liakonis (Division II-AA doubles champ now a junior at Knoxville Catholic), Theo Liakonis (Eleni’s twin brother, also a junior at KCHS), John Macon (senior at William Blount) and Ben Snyder (junior at KCHS).

This fall, the High Fives won the state JTT tournament once again, only to lose again in the Sectional Finals to a team from Mississippi. However, luck was with the team in 2022: they were awarded a wildcard to advance from Sectionals to Orlando.

The team started strong, winning the first three rounds of matches versus teams from Connecticut, Puerto Rico and a strong team from Arizona. Making the finals would be very difficult, as Mississippi again was waiting on the High Fives.

This was a chance to redeem the Sectional loss — a win means a chance to play in the National Finals — or lose and go home.

Theo and Eleni played singles, while Ben, John, Allie and Riley played doubles. At the end of the singles and doubles matches, the High Fives had a five-game lead. This meant eight games in the mixed doubles match would secure a victory for High Fives. Eight games was exactly the number of games won by Theo and Eleni, allowing the High Fives to edge Mississippi 46-45.

This razor-thin win sent the Farragut-area team off to the Finals to face a team from Northern California.

Allie and Riley came back in singles from being down 1-5 to reel off 10 games in a row, winning the match going away.

After boys action, the High Fives had a one-game lead, meaning the national championship would come down to the winners of the mixed doubles match, as Ben and Allie took to the court.

After two hours, which included two timeouts for leg cramps, the teams split sets — with the California team fending off three national championship points — Northern California came away with an 11-9 tiebreaker edge to become national champions.

“You can’t get any closer than that without winning it,” Stultz said. But the High Fives were a quite worthy U.S. runner-up.