By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Saying Grace has now become a common refrain on college tennis courts.
Bland County standout Grace Sarver, who won a trio of singles and doubles championships with the Bears, is having plenty of success at the next level.
If fact, Sarver and her teammates at Milligan College are in Atlanta this weekend for an NAIA qualifier, with hopes of advancing to the NAIA Division I national team tournament next month.
“I enjoy traveling with the girls and them being there with me and being a part of a team and being a part of something,” Sarver said. “It has been a lot of fun for me as a team as well as an individual.”
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Sarver, who is currently the top-seeded player at Milligan, is 19-6 in singles and doubles play, and is ranked 25th in the nation — and 12th in the ultra-competitive South region — among NAIA women’s tennis players.
“I am playing a lot of good ranked players here recently and I have been beating a lot of them so I am really happy with that,” Sarver said. “As far as I know, I don’t know if anybody else at Milligan has ever been nationally ranked as an individual.
“I don’t know that for sure, but it is especially a big feat for me, especially as a freshman, I am really happy about it.”
Sarver never lost a match or even a set in three seasons of tennis at Bland County, capturing three Group A singles crowns, and three doubles titles, twice with Kirby Mustard and once with Rebecca Havens.
She didn’t play high school tennis as a junior, deciding to play in ITA (Intercollegiate Tennis Association) events to better prepare for a future on the college courts.
“I guess being on the team at Bland and playing in all those team matches taught me how a team atmosphere was going to be and what it was like to compete with a team, and then in the number one position,” Sarver said. “High school tennis taught me a lot and I took a lot away from it when I came to college, and my tournaments helped a lot getting in a lot of match play.”
Sarver wasted no time at Milligan — which is located just outside of Johnson City, Tenn. — in making her mark when women’s coach Ryan Roberts selected her as the top seed.
“I personally wasn’t really (surprised), I thought I could do it and I did,” Sarver said. “I don’t know if anybody else was surprised, they might be, but that was my goal when I came here.”
While Sarver was always far better than anyone she played with the Bears, it has been more competitive with the Buffaloes and in the Appalachian Athletic Conference.
“It is a lot different definitely, there is obviously a higher level of play here,” Sarver said. “I do like the atmosphere, being on the team here I have developed some really good relationships with my teammates just like I did in high school.
“It is a little different in the sense that I am not the only one on the team that was really good so it is a lot of fun and we have a lot of good competition within the team as well.”
The daughter of area tennis professional Mark Sarver, Grace has found a talented doubles partner in Sarah Rainwater from Knoxville, Tenn.
“We actually played in a few ITA tournaments this summer together, and then we didn’t play together in the fall, but we started playing together in the spring,” Sarver said. “We did have to get used to it for a couple of matches and we practiced together, but I think we complement each other really well and I really enjoy playing with her.”
Sarver is continuing the family tradition of tennis success. Her brother, Andy, won state titles at Bluefield High School, and later played at Virginia Tech, Concord and Bluefield State. Her sister, Ashleigh, won state crowns at Bland County, and later played at Radford and Virginia Tech.
“Tennis has been a big part of my life since I was little,” Sarver said. “It is great to carry on the family tradition and that has always been my goal to be good at tennis and have some success at it.
“It is great to be part of a family like mine and I feel like success at tennis is very rewarding.”
Another tradition will continue next fall when Sarver transfers from Milligan to play NCAA Division I tennis at Radford University, the site of much of her tennis success, including all six of her state titles with the Bears.
Sarver, who hasn’t been entirely satisfied with the school or tennis program at Milligan, is excited about taking her game to another level.
“I do think a Division I program will suit me a lot better and I will be a little closer to home, back in my neck of the woods,” said Sarver, who posted a 3.75 GPA in her first semester at Milligan, but hasn’t declared a major. “My family has ties there, my sister played at Radford and the coach used to referee my state matches so I am pretty familiar with Radford and the state tournament was played there.
“They have a good Division I program, it is not one of the top programs, but it is still pretty good, and I feel it will be a better fit for me and I will be closer to my family.”
Once school is out and Sarver is free for the summer, she will stay active in the game, either on the clay courts on the family property, or playing in ITA events in preparation for a future with the Highlanders.
“I am going to go home and practice a lot with my dad and probably play a lot of tennis this summer, probably play on the ITA circuit again,” Sarver said. “That will keep me playing and get me ready going into Radford next fall.”
The Dedmon Center Courts at Radford have been kind to Sarver over the years. Not a bad place to continue her tennis career.
“That is a second home to me on the tennis courts,” Sarver said. “I have played a lot there, had a lot of success so it won’t be too new to me.”
— Contact Brian Woodson