George Pilkington hawked the outer sidelines of the Cape Henry Collegiate tennis courts on Thursday.
The Dolphins coach was directing practice as usual.
Two players competitively volleyed, then switched partners repeatedly. The routine creates diversity for normally redundant drills. Players have to adjust on the fly.
On another court, Pilkington pulled aside one of his players and practiced situational strategies, volleying the ball to a certain spot and offering advice.
The session was non-stop.
“We’re never standing around,” said Brooke Pilkington, George’s daughter and three-time state player of the year in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association. “There’s always something for us to do, and it’s worked out for us for quite a while.”
Coach Pilkington’s system has produced four consecutive Independent School state championships — the last three in Division 1, the first in Division 2 — and it has the Dolphins primed for a fifth.
Cape Henry (6-1) is ranked second in the VISAA weekly state rankings poll, just behind Norfolk Academy, the only team to beat the Dolphins this year. The loss was only Cape Henry’s second in five years.
“I try to make the program legitimate rather just occupying a couple of hours after school,” George Pilkington said. “I wanted to add purpose to it.”
“There’s no sick days, hurt days or off days. They have to be on their ‘A’ game every single day,” he added. “With winning comes expectations and pressure, which I do like. At a young age these kids learn how to perform under pressure. That’s what I expect day in and day out.”
His players expect it, too.
It’s one of the reasons Pilkington decided to move the program to the state’s tougher Division 1 competition after their Division 2 championship in 2011.
The sixth-year coach has created a culture that breeds success. He also coaches the Cape Henry boys’ tennis team, which won D1 states in 2012 and 2013.
In the past five years, the programs have produced five college players: Brittany Pilkington (George’s oldest daughter, now playing at George Mason University), Tanner Baine (George Mason), Zack Zapatero (Davidson), Chris Armistead (University of Virginia at Wise), and Karling Watson (a recent graduate of East Carolina University).
Brooke Pilkington, a senior, has committed to the University of Delaware, while junior teammates Nicole Krykanov and Aja Shelton are undecided.
“You have to expose them to the best tennis out there, which will prepare them to play collegiate tennis,” George Pilkington said.
The Brooke Pilkington-Krykanov-Shelton trio lead a smaller eight-player roster that consistently competes with larger programs.
Shelton transferred to Cape Henry last year from Norfolk Collegiate — a Tidewater Conference of Independent Schools rival — to be a part of the Dolphins program. She is ranked 14th among juniors in the state, according to TennisRecruiting.net.
“It’s a lot more intense here,” Shelton said. “Every time we play, I feel expected to win. It’s cool to have that pressure.”
Krykanov, a two-time all-state junior, is ranked first among juniors in the state. The Virginia Beach native has been climbing the national rankings over the past three years.
She pairs with Brooke Pilkington to form one of the most formidable doubles teams in the state.
“This team is home for me,” Krykanov said. “We’ve learned to become comfortable with each other.”
Tennis is in the Pilkington family’s blood. Brooke, who was picking up a racket at the age of four, has taken lessons from other instructors, but not without her dad also giving critiques on the sideline. He has been his daughters’ only main coach.
“It’s like he can’t let anyone else coach me,” Brooke joked. “It’s natural for him.”
George said balancing his roles as father and coach is a high-wire act he walks everyday. Brooke said her father knows how to motivate and talk to her during certain situations.
They try to leave tennis on the court and avoid discussing it at home, but their passion for the game occasionally finds its way in.
“The ups definitely trump the downs,” Brooke said of the dynamic. “We don’t let it consume our lives, but winning is exciting.”
There’s been no shortage of winning for the Dolphins. They carry a target on their back each match. Having been at the top for four straight years, how do they stay hungry?
“Our motivation is previously winning states,” Brooke said. “What’s a better feeling?”
The Dolphins know complacency is not an option, and George makes sure of it.
“Sometimes we get sluggish, he reminds us that it’s not going to be handed to us,” Krykanov said. “We lost to N.A. and it was a reality check. It’s about discipline.”
Cape Henry will get a shot to redeem their early season loss on Monday, when it travels to play Norfolk Academy again.
“We’ve gotten better everyday,” Shelton said. “We have the belief that we can beat anybody.”