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Sports: in 'WHS family,' team connects with former player

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

“We’re just here to have fun,” Joan Cribb told players as they checked in Friday afternoon for the Ashley Gaines Tennis Tournament. Two hours later she choked back tears as she explained to girls from six high school teams the other reason they were there.

Gaines was a member of the Waccamaw High tennis team that won its third straight Class AA championship in 2006. The following spring she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. She died 14 months later.

The weekend tournament was a benefit for the Ashley G Foundation, created by Ashley’s parents, David and Melanie Gaines, to raise money for research and to help patients and their families.

“She was loved by everyone,” said Cribb, the head tennis coach and athletics director. “If she was here, she’d know everyone’s name.”

Although the school rallied behind Ashley during her illness and her former coach, James Brown, made two cross-country bike rides to raise money and awareness for the foundation, this was the first school-sponsored event for the nonprofit, David Gaines said.

Cribb presented a $1,000 check to the foundation raised from the entry fees.

Allison Stanford, a former teammate of Ashley’s and a 2009 WHS graduate, volunteered at the concession stand for the opening day of the event. She recalled how Ashley befriended her when she arrived at Waccamaw from Lowcountry Day School.

“She was one of the most beautiful girls,” she said. “She was so bubbly.”

Cribb urged the players to take the time during the tournament to make new friends and to leave with a new appreciation for what they have.

“Be thankful every day that you can come out and play,” said Rocket Wheeler, a minor league manager in the Atlanta Braves system and a “second father” to Ashley. “Play with heart because you’re athletes.”

The message resonated. Todd Seagle, coach for Spartanburg High, said his players plan to hold a fundraiser for the Ashley G Foundation this season. “It had an impact,” he said.

Lindsay Costin, a senior who plays No. 3 singles for the Warriors, knew Ashley Gaines because her sister Megan was on the Waccamaw team. “I remember she being around and being really friendly,” Lindsay said. “She projected a lot of happiness.”

Other members of the Waccamaw team said they feel a connection with Ashley and with all the past players.

“It’s special. We have this connection,” Costin explained. “The things that they did still affect us.”

“It’s that Waccamaw family thing,” said assistant coach Mary Cannon.

Spartanburg went home with the first place trophy, finishing with 298 points. Matches went to the first player to win 10 games. Socastee were the runners-up, edging River Bluff High from Lexington 209-208. The Warriors were fourth with 194. Aynor, 190, and Johnsonville, 89, rounded out the field.

Aside from making a trip to the beach for the weekend, Seagle said the tournament was a chance for his players to see new opponents. He had four seventh-graders in his starting lineup.

Maggie Cubitt, No. 1 for the Vikings, squared off with Ali DeSpain, the seventh-grader at No. 1 for Waccamaw, in what turned out to be the premiere match of the tournament: a two-hour contest that DeSpain won 10-9.

Cubitt broke serve to go up 9-7, but DeSpain broke back. Cubitt fell behind 0-30 on a double-fault and a long backhand. She rallied to take the game to deuce before netting a forehand at matchpoint.

DeSpain gave up only one point in each of the next two games. It was the third time she had played Cubitt and the last junior circuit match went to three sets, she said.

Cribb was pleased with the team’s performance. Against River Bluff, she pulled her seven starters to give her reserves a chance to play. “They did really well,” she said.

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