Double vision: Twins play final PCHS match
October 4, 2018
Park City High School has had a formidable girls tennis team for the past decade, but for the last four years the Miners have become a perennial favorite for state champion, thanks in large part to the Rockwoods. The identical senior twin sisters, Livi and Gabby, took over the respective No. 1 and No. 2 singles positions as soon as they joined the high school team as freshmen in 2015. Since then, the Rockwoods have placed either first or second in their positions each year in the state tournament, and have helped Park City win the state championship for three of the last four years, including a second-place finish this season.
On Saturday, they played their last matches with the team they had led over their whole high school careers.
The twins were introduced to the game at a young age, joining the youth program at the PC MARC when they were around five years old. That's when Miners head coach Heather Nicholas' first saw them play. Nicholas coached them for two years at the youth level before leaving to coach at the Advantage Tennis Academy in Irvine, California. She returned to Park City in 2011 and saw the progress the Rockwoods had made in her absence.
"I was gone for a couple years, then came back and here are these amazing ladies that were hitting the snot out of the ball," she said.
Nicholas wasn't the only one who recognized the Rockwoods' talent. By the time Nicholas returned, Skosh Berwald, a local tennis veteran who played on the junior circuit around Utah and had spent seven years as a professional in Europe, had also discovered the Rockwoods.
"Just looking at their mom and dad; how athletic they were, I knew they had the potential to play the game at a high, high level," he said.
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Twins in appearance, not play
Berwald, who recruited the twins as pupils when they were 10, and has coached them for between eight and 10 hours a week ever since, said the similarities between the two stop at appearances.
"It's weird because they are identical twins but they are completely different – their styles of play and method of learning. I teach each one completely differently," Berwald said.
Berwald said Livi is more of a power-baseline player, ready to turn the match into a test of endurance, while Gabby will happily move to the net and try ending the match early by cutting down volleys.
They also have different temperaments and dress differently. This season, the two opted for different team uniforms to eliminate any confusion over whose clothes are whose between themselves; but it's also handy for spectators. Livi wears shorts, Gabby wears a skirt.
But while their styles are different, their skill has been similarly hard to match for their opponents.
From their first day as Miners, the two had few real competitors among the high school teams they faced. As freshmen, they took over the first and second doubles positions – Livi at first singles, Gabby at second singles. Livi defeated Desert Hills senior Madz Eames in three sets in the 3A state finals in 2015, while Gabby took second behind Grantsville junior Bailie Sandberg.
The twins bumped Miners sophomore Tailor Matz from the first singles position their freshman year, and Matz, who could have easily found a place as a first singles player in other years or on other teams, filled in as a strong third-singles player throughout the rest of her time wearing the red black, and solidified the Miners' singles squad.
As a sophomore, Livi took second at the 2016 Class 3A state championship, finishing behind Naya Tillitt, who would win every year after, and also became close friends with Livi off the court. Gabby took first in second singles over junior Kristen Johnson of Ridgeline, while Matz took first in third singles over freshman Annie Spach of Logan. Strong performances from the Miners' doubles teams rounded out a blowout year for Park City, beating Ridgeline in the championship 26-13.
Last year, Livi took second in first singles again behind Tillitt, while Gabby took first in second singles over Desert Hills sophomore Faith Hess. Matz beat junior Aspen Jones, also of Desert Hills, to take first in third singles.
The three helped the team take its third consecutive state victory. Park City's 20 points put it above Desert Hills and Ridgeline, which tied for second with 15 points each.
Then there was Saturday, when the twins donned their Miners jerseys for the last time.
Tillitt won the first singles championship 6-1, 6-1, with Livi in second. Gabby defeated Desert Hills sophomore Mackenzie Telford 6-2, 6-1.
With Matz graduated and gone, junior Brooklyn Thompson played at third singles, and took second overall behind Ridgeline's Madi Benchley. The Miners' doubles teams didn't reach the semifinals and Park City finished in a tie for second with Desert Hills. Ridgeline won with 17 points to Park City and Desert Hills' 16 apiece.
If the twins were disappointed with not winning the championship their senior year, they didn't show it.
Livi and Gabby said over their experiences on the team were so positive they couldn't pick out any individual moment – the seasons were each a string of them. Not winning a fourth consecutive state didn't tarnish that.
"We didn't come here for the state titles," Gabby said. "We came here to try our best and to show everyone here what we've got. And I think we did a really good job."
Nicholas certainly believed the two had achieved that goal, in both the state tournament and their time with the team as a whole.
"I think they were something the other girls tried to aspire to," she said. "Really good role models as far as their work ethic both on and off the court – whether it was working out or mental toughness type of things … they are so engaging and so, so sweet to everyone on the team. Over the years there have been some (players) who are kind of wallflowers and (the Rockwoods) always try and reach out to them and make them feel like they are part of the team."
That positive attitude extended to the Rockwoods' competitors as well, including the Tillitts.
Drew Tillitt, Naya's father, said the Rockwood family's relaxed demeanor was a refreshing outlier in competitive tennis.
"In this sport, you don't always see that," he said. "You see the parents and the kids being so competitive, but here it's like you're playing almost a family member. They're just good people."
Next fall, the Rockwoods are planning to attend Redlands University in Redlands, California, where they hope to continue to play together. Berwald said their games could go through a renaissance in Southern California.
"I actually think this is nothing compared to what they are going to become," Berwald said. "A lot of kids will go to college and (won't improve), they don't get as good. But these two, their games are going to improve big time, within a year; year and a half. I'm stoked."
As for the Park City Miners, Nicholas said she hopes to see the Rockwoods' legacy carry on as part of a culture of excellence for the team.
"I think they set a bar that, hopefully, the new up and comers will aspire to," she said.
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