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Article updated: 10/23/2013 5:10 PM

Bartlett duo primed to defy seeding again

By John Radtke

Here's a challenge for a cold winter day.

Go to the IHSA website and research how many girls tennis players have advanced to the state tournament four straight years in doubles play with four different partners.

The first name that will pop up on what's likely a very shortlist is Bartlett's Gabby Gregorio.

When she takes the court with her senior partner Jen Gates Thursday morning at Prospect High School, Gregorio will have come full circle in more ways than one. Her first state doubles partner was Jen Gates' sister, Katie, back in 2010 when Katie, now a sophomore at Valparaiso, was a junior and the pair finished third at sectionals.

Jennifer Parato was Gregorio's 2011 sectional championship partner -- they won the championship match over Katie Gates and Kaylen Kress -- and last year it was Jitsung Sirinit and Gregorio who teamed up to take second at sectionals.

Last weekend, Gregorio and Jen Gates slapped seeds in the face with their St. Charles East sectional title. They came in seeded third and rose to the challenge, beating Batavia's Jenny Mizikar and Amelia Cogan for the sectional title.

Start with a Gates, finish with a Gates. Gregorio says it's a natural fit.

"We've been playing with each other since we were eight years old," she says of herself and Jen Gates. "We haven't been partners but we grew up together, we take a lot of private lessons together and we put in a lot of work. We work on strategy every match and we get stronger together. This year has been a lot of fun."

First-year Bartlett coach Kari Klein wasn't sure about the Gregorio-Gates team when the season started.

"Gabby had trained to be a singles player," said Klein, a 2006 Bartlett graduate who was the Hawks' JV coach last fall then the head boys coach at Streamwood this past spring before taking over the Bartlett girls program from the retired Sue Hannula, who stayed on this year as a volunteer assistant coach.

"I talked to her and Jen about being doubles partners and at first they weren't so sure. They came back the next day and said they'd try it."

Some experiments just plain don't work. Some end up like the Gregorio-Gates experiment -- a resounding success.

Proof is in the numbers. The team has a 23-1 record this season, losing only to a Maine South team on Sept. 12. They breezed through the Upstate Eight Valley meet but didn't get much respect in sectional seeding, so they went out and did something about it.

More numbers tell a four-year story of success. Gates' career record is 111-15 and Gregorio's 104-22. Martina Wodzinski is the only other player in Bartlett's 17-year history to reach 100 wins.

"It's been fun watching them develop," said Hannula. "It's been a real pleasure for me to coach them, especially the last couple of years when they have become role models for the other girls, always encouraging the other girls to get outside lessons and improve."

Gates knew she had to make the switch to doubles to enhance her ability when it comes time to play in college. She is currently looking at Northern Illinois, where she would study nursing, or the U.S. Naval Academy, where her interest would be in oceanography.

"Looking forward to college next year, I didn't have much doubles experience," said Gates, a three-time state singles qualifier. "I thought a whole season of doubles would help and Gabby is a great player. We work really well together."

That's because their strengths make them the perfect doubles partners.

"I set her up and I'm more of the hard hitter," Gates says. "She'll slice and lob and I just hit it flat. We set each other up nicely and it's been working well."

Gates being left-handed gives the Hawk tandem an edge as well.

"They compliment each other real well and Jen being left-handed is an advantage," said Klein. "They're really good friends. They spent all summer playing together, they really clicked and the chemistry is there."

Hannula says the team's mentality has a lot to do with the success as well.

"They don't get mad at each other and they don't get down on themselves," she said. "They're there for each other. Jen brings the power and Gabby has a wonderful net game."

Now comes the end of their four-year Bartlett tennis careers, but Gregorio and Gates have lofty goals for this weekend.

"We're definitely looking forward to it," Gates said. "Our goal is to win the state championship, or if we don't win it to finish at least top five. We just have to stay positive. Sometimes you hit a bad shot and the shoulders slump. We just have to stay up and stay positive."

Gregorio, who is interested in studying sports medicine or becoming a professional tennis coach, says a repeat of the sectional title match performance would be fine with her, especially considering the team is seeded 17th at state, despite having just one loss for the season.

"We just have to do what we did in the final match of the sectional," she said. "We were losing the whole time and it made us want to play harder and prove everybody wrong. You never really know until you get there but I think we can make it pretty far and shock people like we did at sectionals."

Klein believes her duo has a chance to be standing on the awards stand come Saturday evening.

"I really truly believe the odds are in their favor," she said. "If they can stay together and keep their focus I truly believe they can win state and even if they don't win we believe they can have a top finish."

And slap those seedings in the face yet again.

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