BY DAVE LINK
Catholic tennis coach Rusty Morris knew he had a special player in Maeve Thornton and a special team during the 2021 season.
Thornton won the Division II-AA state singles championship as a sophomore and led the Lady Irish to the Division II-AA team title, beating Baylor 4-0 in the final and ending its nine-year winning streak of state championships.
It was just a start for the Lady Irish.
Thornton, a Furman signee, won her third consecutive Division II-AA state singles title May 26 – two days after leading the Lady Irish to their third straight state title over Baylor in the final, this time by a 4-1 score.
Thornton never lost a match in her high school career – singles or doubles – and the Lady Irish never lost a team match while climbing to No. 1 in the national rankings by Universal Tennis Rating (UTR) since last fall.
“It was incredible,” Morris said of the team’s run. “I knew we were going to be good when we beat Baylor the first time three years ago, but just to continue to get better, and those players, the top four or five girls being so dominant this year.
“Maeve being undefeated for her career, and then our 2, 3, 4, and 5 not losing a match all year in singles, and our 1 and 2 doubles not losing for the year. With the league we play in and the coaching we play against, it’s incredible, and Maeve being undefeated for her career is an incredible feat. It takes great focus, preparation, and everything to do that.”
Thornton, the three-time 5Star Preps Girls Player of the year, combines an all-court game with a fierce tenacity.
“She never gives a free point away,” Morris said. “Opponents are always going to have to earn everything they get. I think that’s part of the thing. People have hung with her in first sets, but I think they’re so exhausted mentally and physically after that first set, they don’t hang with her very closely in the second set. That’s what she’s able to do with the combination of different shots she has plus her ability to think her way through points during the match.”
BEING A TEAM PLAYER
Thornton, a 5-star recruit the No. 1 state recruit, embraced the team aspect at Catholic. She and Gigi Sompayrac were the team’s only seniors.
“That was the best part because tennis is normally such an individual sport,” Thornton said, “and you have to be kind of selfish. You travel by yourself and you train by yourself sometimes, and so it’s great to not just be thinking about you but be thinking about the other people as well.”
Lillie Murphy, who played No. 2 singles and doubles, completed her sophomore season without losing a match. She and rising senior Eleni Liakonis (No. 3 singles) won the Division II-AA state doubles title for the second consecutive year.
Sompayrac, who signed with Division I Anderson (S.C.) University, played No. 1 doubles with Thornton and No. 4 singles this season. She was a top-four singles player all three years for Catholic’s state title teams.
“It’s amazing, just to see over the three years when I played at Catholic, it’s amazing to see how much we accomplished,” Thornton said. “I think we started something and I hope it continues over the years, and it makes especially me and Gigi as seniors, it makes us proud to know that we were a part of that and we helped create that. It’s crazy to think we never lost as a team, which is very rare. Not many people can say that in high school they never lost. It’s definitely an accomplishment and we’re very proud.”
Thornton is playing as much tournament tennis as possible before starting her academic and tennis careers at Furman in Greenville, South Carolina.
In mid-June, she played a UTR-sanctioned event in Rome, Georgia, competing against current college players and rising college freshmen.
Thornton won four round-robin matches – including a tight match against Tennessee’s Lauren Alzalotta, a rising senior from Puerto Rico – and advanced to the winners’ bracket before losing her last match.
“I’ve been playing well,” Thornton said June 21. “I’m getting really excited for college, and I just want to get as many matches as I can in, but I’ve been playing really well.”
Thornton is coached by her father, Knoxville Racquet Club teaching pro David Thornton, a former MTSU player. Thornton’s mom, Michelle White, also played at MTSU.
In the spring of 2022, Thornton committed to Furman and stayed with her commitment, bypassing chances to play at more high-profile schools.
“I talked to a few bigger schools. I talked a little bit to UT, but I just wanted to go a little farther away for college,” she said. “Furman was always one of my favorite choices just because of the location and it has great tennis but is also great academic-wise.
“When I was going through the recruiting process, I had gotten hurt and I had taken a little time off, and so because of that, there was like a few months when I didn’t play tournaments and so I didn’t talk to as many coaches because of that, but Furman always had so much belief in me.”
Thornton won’t be the first Knoxville standout signed by Furman. Julia Adams, a 2018 Bearden graduate and the ’18 Class AAA state singles champion, signed with the Lady Paladins.
Adams played four seasons at Furman and was the 2022 Southern Conference Player of the Year. This year, as a graduate student at Virginia, Adams won an Atlantic Region singles title and was a doubles All-American after reaching the NCAA semifinals with Melodie Collard.
Morris believes Thornton has a big career ahead of her.
“I think she could be great,” he said. “I’m excited to see what she does because we’re just coming off of Juju Adams playing at Furman and being all-conference when she was there, and then graduating and going to Virginia to play, and she’s a top-five player in the NCAA doubles at the end of this year.
“I really think Maeve could follow in Juju’s footsteps of a person from Knoxville thriving at Furman and doing a lot of the same things that Juju’s paved the road for.”
Adams has returned to Knoxville at times the past couple of summers and joined clinics in which Thornton was playing.
Thornton sees Adams as inspiration.
“When I hit with her,” Thornton said, “she was like Furman’s No. 1 and she did so well, so she’s like a role model, I guess, to look up to.”