In tennis, you know when it’s time to retire.
Hall of Famer Pete Sampras called it quits in 2002 after winning his 14th and final Grand Slam singles title in the U.S. Open, which was the final tournament of his career.
Marion Bartoli followed suit after the 28-year-old won at Wimbledon in 2013 and retired from the game a month later.
In early June, Cave Spring High School girls head tennis coach Susan Delp likewise signed off on her last lineup when she closed out her career with one last thunderous victory.
Delp definitely went out on top – and at the end of quite a 7-year run.
Delp, a Cave Spring graduate herself and former high school teacher, jumped into the coaching ranks in 2012, admittedly with a lot of confidence.
“I had dealt with that high school age group before and saw the future of Cave Spring High School tennis,” Delp noted during a June interview. “I wanted to do it my way.”
A pair of outstanding Cave Spring players had skipped the high school team in favor of a tennis academy in 2011. Delp’s first coaching project was to bring the two players back to the Knights’ squad.
“i knew with a little flexibility I could make it work in a fair way for the team. I only saw the girls doing the Johan Kriek Tennis Academy as a positive for our team. I was so happy for those two girls, Lauren Sledd and Emily Meyers, because they got so much local recognition that year, and wouldn’t have had it if they had not played tennis. Coaching is all about the kids. It benefited them and they represented Cave Spring well.”
“After all, I don’t think my coaching and instruction would compare to Johan Kriek’s,” Delp added with a laugh. “I didn’t play tennis in high school or college; I learned as an adult.”
Susan and her husband Ken’s two daughters, Fallon and Reagan, were undoubtably the driving force for Susan to grab the racket.
“When Fallon and Reagan started taking lessons at a very early age, I decided to learn,” Delp noted. “Ken already played tennis, so I thought it would be fun to play as a family. I sat through all of the girls’ private tennis lessons, absorbed that knowledge and began taking lessons of my own. I started playing in the local tennis leagues and tennis was our travel sport for the girls when they were young.”
But, like a crafty poker player, Delp knew she had a pair of secret weapons looming in the ranks to raise the ante for Cave Spring tennis as Fallon and Reagan approached high school age.
Fallon joined the team in 2013 as a freshman and things went through the roof in 2015 when Reagan became a freshman in Susan’s fourth year as the Cave Spring coach. It helped that tennis had become a very popular sports at Cave Spring, with a number of top players attracted to Susan’s coaching style.
“High school tennis is a sport that is very cut and dry on where someone is in the lineup,” Susan pointed out. “Each year the players knew I would conduct challenge matches which proves everyone’s position on the team. I wasn’t playing my kid at #1 because I was the coach. My coaching goal from my first day of taking this position seven years ago was to take these girls where they deserved to be, state champions. Our success has been the result of a team effort. It was a collection of people to make this happen; having dedicated players, parents, coaches and high school administration. I’ve had four assistant coaches over the years, Mike Johnson, Ken Riding, Tommy Harman and Ken. It all made my job easier.”
In 2015, Fallon narrowly lost to Abingdon’s Tyler Blalock in the VHSL Group AA singles final before returning the next day to team up with Reagan to win the doubles state title. One day later, Cave Spring won its first team championship in school history with a spectacular victory over perennial tennis powerhouse Western Albemarle.
“This was a very exciting win for many reasons,” Susan said. “It was exiting for my team, my family and my school. I’m a 1986 CS grad. I didn’t grow up playing sports, I was a ballet dancer. My mother owned a dance school, so in a way I felt like I had now contributed to the school.”
In 2016, with Fallon as a senior and Reagan a sophomore, Cave Spring pulled the perfect trifecta, with Fallon winning the singles, Fallon and Reagan teaming up to take the doubles and the Knights’ team topping Blacksburg for the team championship.
“That year I was really confident that we could win all 3, “Susan noted. “Our team was so deep and strong with girls like Christy Goldsmith. Things can always happen like injuries or sickness, but I felt if we were healthy and played the way we were capable, we should win. Every year my top players have all been USTA tournament girls, so playing several matches in a day and doing it multiple days is really not a factor.”
With Fallon off to play for Virginia Tech in 2017, Susan had to reconfigure the lineup.
“We not only lost Fallon, but Christy as well. Christy had been Caitlin Carter’s doubles partner and that pairing had been an automatic win for us,” Susan recalled. “We spent a lot of time focusing on doubles strategies in 2017. We went with pairing up #1 and #3 (Reagan and Grace Holderman) and #2 and #4 (Caitlin and Maha Ali) for doubles in the team play only. In the state doubles tournament we paired Reagan and Caitlin, and they won it all. We lost to Abingdon in the Conference, Region and State team titles. Reagan and Caitlin had lost the doubles in the Conference and Region, but I kept telling them it is the last one that really counts.”
In June, Reagan lost in the singles final at Roanoke College to York’s superstar Natasha Novak in straight sets 6-4, 6-3. The next day, Reagan got a measure of revenge when she and Caitlin teamed up to knock off Novak and her partner, Cassie Watts, in a nail biter 7-6 (8-6), 7-5. The win was punctuated as both players changed clothes in the car and rushed to their graduation at nearby Salem Cilic Center.
“They knew their strategy was to keep the ball away from Natasha Novak,” Susan emphatically pointed out. “Unfortunately, the psychological disadvantage was dealing with the possibility of missing graduation. I kept telling them you can’t be thinking about what time it is and to keep your head on the court. They did win, but it was by far the ugliest game I have ever seen them play. But, I don’t think we will remember that down the road; just that they won and made graduation. They say a win is a win.”
By comparison, the state team title the next day was a breeze with Cave Spring dominating James Monroe 5-1 in a match that was decided before reaching the final three doubles competitions.
“This state championship was definitely the smoothest I have been in,” Susan commented. “At the beginning of the season, I wouldn’t have expected it. I would have expected it to come down to doubles. The team started practicing outside of my practices and it showed. I really started to see the determination of this team.”
The final tally for Susan is staggering. Singles title by Fallon in 2016, doubles titles four straight years from ’15-’18 and team titles in 2015, ’16 and ’18. Even more compelling is the VHSL’s standard for awarding state championship rings to state champs in singles, doubles and every member of a team winner along with the coaches. The Delp household has qualified for 18 rings since 2015.
“Since I’ve been here, we win as a team and lose as a team,” Susan points out. “In singles, it’s only you on that court and sometimes it comes down to your match that decides the outcome for the team. My philosophy has always been to coach in a positive manner. I know they want to win and they don’t know the pressure I feel about trying to help them. All of these girls are my girls. They’ve practiced at Hunting Hills indoor courts late at night in the middle of the winter when other teams are at home in front of the fireplace. I try to say things that keep them motivated and giving strategies on winning and turning a match around. I have had players so upset and crying in a match that I just tell them to put everything in perspective, “this is just tennis.”
Things probably won’t slow down on the tennis landscape for Susan.
“From my first year, I made it known that I wouldn’t go past 2018. It had everything to do with Reagan graduating. Now, I can watch Fallon play at Virginia Tech and Caitlin will be playing at Christopher Newport. I want to attend as many of their matches as I can, play in a couple tennis groups and getting to some CS girls basketball and tennis matches. And, we’ll keep playing as a family. Every vacation, we all take our rackets, but I’m the weakest link so we don’t play against each other to keep peace in the family.”
But, Fallon, while watching Reagan in the state championships in June, had a different take on the family competition.
“It can get heated,” she said with a laugh. “I can beat my Mom, but for all of us it’s not a vacation without tennis.”
Cave Spring athletic director Jon Hartness reflected on the success that Susan brought to the Knights.
“Susan brought the first tennis state championship in our school’s history. She was able to bring all the talent together and developed a lot of the younger players with hard work and a lot of practice. The hours she has devoted to our girls tennis team has led to their success.”
The Queen may have retired, but the foundation of the Knights’ castle is firmly set in stone.