OWOSSO – Before Anna Raffaelli steps on the tennis court, she’s already caught her opponents off guard.
Initially, it’s the skirt that she said leaves them muddled. Afterwards, it’s the skirt-skill combination.
Raffaelli, a junior at Owosso High School, recently began her third season on the boys varsity tennis team, and she and her partner Cole Mallory are on pace to have their best season yet. The No. 1 doubles duo is 9-5 through the first few weeks of the year.
“When teams first come off the bus, I’ll look over at them, and you can see them talking to their teammates, like, ‘Woah! There’s a girl. She’s wearing a skirt,'” Raffaelli said. “After the first few points, I think they start to get more serious about it. When we’re warming up, you can see them smiling. But it’s always fun to surprise them and make them mad.
“There’s a few who will come up and say, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good. I was surprised.’ Some guys won’t even shake my hand at the match because they’re so mad, but most of the time they show sportsmanship.”
Raffaelli never played tennis competitively before high school. She said the only reason she joined the team, which is coached by her father, Mike Raffaelli, is because it’s a good tune-up for basketball season. Also, Raffaelli said she prefers soccer over tennis, and the intersection of the two girls sports in the spring prompted her to join the boys team.
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 allows her to participate in any boys sport. According to the Michigan High School Athletic Association, there were three boys tennis teams last year with at least one girl on their rosters. And out of the 6,065 boys tennis participants last fall, only 12 were girls.
“At first, I was kind of hesitant about it because I didn’t know how I would be treated,” she said. “I didn’t know if they would look down on me or take it easy on me.”
When she started playing her freshman year, Raffaelli, who has never competed against a girl in tennis, said she didn’t have any expectations. But she was concerned that her opponents wouldn’t take her seriously.
Mallory, who has been Raffaelli’s partner all through high school, said he’s never noticed an opposing player show mercy. But he has come to the realization that guys are much more polite to girls than each other.
“Sometimes during the match, if they hit her with the ball, they’ll feel bad,” he said. “I knew (having a girl on the team) was different, but I knew she was playing tennis with her dad before, so she was good.”
The duo said this season has been their best to date. Raffaelli said opposing coaches have praised the duo’s improvement over the years.
“(Tennis is) intense, and they play with that intensity,” said Mike Raffaelli, who has been the Trojans’ coach for nine seasons. “They’ve competed (well) against the higher teams.”
Raffaelli said she no longer constantly reminds herself that she’s the only girl or that she’s playing against boys. Now, to her, it’s just normal.
“As a freshman coming in I was definitely not as confident,” she said. “I kind of just held my head down. I’ve been feeling way more comfortable with it. I just brush it off my shoulders that I’m playing guys. It’s normal now.
“The guys on the team expect it, as well. It doesn’t seem to phase them anymore.”
Contact James L. Edwards III at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JLEdwardsIII.