PEMBROKE — Since Purnell Swett High School opened more than 20 years ago, plenty of tennis players have come and gone, but on merit, Kali Strickland stands alone.
By winning her first two matches at the 4A East Regional Championships last week in Wilmington, the junior became the first Ram — regardless of gender — to qualify for the state tournament in the sport.
“I’m very appreciative of the opportunity I’ve had and it’s amazing to make history at this school,” Strickland said. “It was very exciting and a great honor.”
The latest part of her journey begins Friday when she plays Lake Norman’s Lauren Gish to open the NCHSAA 4A State Championship tournament at the Millbrook Exchange Tennis Park in Raleigh.
“Back in August I felt like she had the potential to have this type of season, at least in the conference, but for her to take it to the regional level and now on to the state is just unbelievable,” said Swett coach David Leek. “The first one in school history, that’s just phenomenal.”
A year in which a lot of things have had to go right, Strickland was hardly held back by the bumps along the way, no matter how severe they seemed.
Not even a bruise on a bone in her right wrist could hold her back.
In the waning weeks of the season, Purnell Swett had its first match of the year against rival Lumberton. During that match, Leek recalls hearing a pop. The resulting pain continued a few days later, forcing Strickland to sit out while seeking medical help.
“In all honesty, I said ‘Is her season over?’ I didn’t know what to think,” Leek said. “It was pretty emotional because of the season she was having and we only had two weeks left in the regular season.”
The idea that the season could be over was on the mind of both the team — which played a week of matches without its top singles player — and Strickland herself.
“I had a MRI done and I was waiting for those results and I didn’t know if something may have been torn or if my season would have been over,” she said.
X-rays showed no breaks and a MRI revealed the pain was from a bone contusion, which meant she could play, albeit with plenty of pain.
“After I got the results they said there wasn’t anything torn and I could play with the pain that I could tolerate and it would heal on its own,” Strickland said.
Kali’s father, Steve Strickland, said that because it was a contusion, playing through it would delay the healing process but wouldn’t leave her vulnerable to further injury.
The plus was that she got to continue the season, but it came with the side effect of a constant pain.
When she’s not playing, her wrist is protected by a brace. When she’s on the court, she has it wrapped with multiple types of athletic tape.
She only missed a week’s worth of matches, though Strickland admits she initially had some second thoughts about playing again so soon.
“I was having a lot of pain when I went back to playing but it eased off,” she said.
Because of the injury, she had to adjust her time on the court. Practice time was minimal and rather than a singles/doubles slate at team matches, Strickland would play singles and ice her wrist immediately afterwards.
“I don’t know if the normal athlete would have persisted through it like Kali has,” Leek said.
It was hardly the last bump in the road for her.
At the Southeastern Conference tournament in Laurinburg, Strickland was the top seed. Her regional status was never in question, but she had a tough loss to Lumberton’s Abby Kinlaw in a semifinal match that lasted three hours.
The two use the same coach outside of high school play and brought a similar repertoire to the table.
“She hides her emotions a lot with me and I know how much the loss to Abby Kinlaw hurt her but I know what type of person she is and she showed it when she came back for the third place match against Piper Davis, of Pinecrest, and beat her,” Leek said.
Strickland said she kept the bigger picture in mind.
“I just had to think that I had more matches to play and had to bounce back from it,” she said.
Coincidentally she ended up taking third in the regional tournament and had the school’s first regional win since 2003 in the process.
An experienced regional player, she made the tournament as a doubles player her freshman year and was bumped in the first round of singles last year.
“Last year I did get beat pretty bad and I had the mentality that I didn’t want that to happen again,” she said. “I wanted to try harder.”
It’s a progression that Leek sees as a positive as the level of competition continues to rise.
“It’s going to be a good experience and we’ve took it like that before,” Leek said. “We want to go there and just like regionals, the tennis she was exposed to was different than what she faced during the regular season. With her being a junior, she can bring that back to her teammates.”
Leek knows state will be tough, but views the journey as a positive regardless of outcome.
“They can’t take away that she’s one of the top 16 4A players in the state,” he said.