West High Tennis continues to thrive under an Alaskan coaching pioneer

August 19 – West High Tennis

The first year Alaska was crowned champion of a state high school tennis team under the Alaska School Activities Association was 2007. Since then, only two schools — West High and South — have claimed titles.

And for the state’s most productive program, there is one constant.

Bill Cotton, West’s coach, is a pioneer of the sport in the state and has overseen eight state championships.

“South and West are the only teams to ever win the state title,” Cotton said. “Since I started in 2004, we’ve won 15 out of 18 conference championships.”

After South won it all in 2017, the Eagles took over the state in 2018. In 2019, the two schools were state champions after finishing with 105 points apiece at the end of the tournament.

Though no team champion was crowned in 2020, the Eagles had the most top-three individual finishes that year with five, and the closest schools were South and Lathrop with three each.

In 2021, the Eagles were Conference champions with South Co-Cook Inlet because both teams finished 11-1. West took the state title.

“In my opinion he’s the best coach in the state,” said junior Will Sedwick. “I love to win and I love to play tennis for West.”

West High Tennis

While high school tennis has existed in Alaska since the 1980s, there were no official-level state tournaments until 2007. West won the first before winning eight of the next 13 state tournaments through 2021. South has won six.

Cotton was one of the early pioneers and architects of the state tournament for Alaska high school tennis.

“When I got here, I started what’s called the Invitational, which was essentially a state title,” Cotton said.

Attracting many of the city’s best young tennis players, West maintains a steady pipeline of talent through the program, working with players of all skill levels through middle school age.

“We’ve never cut anybody,” Cotton said. “We encourage everyone to go out and play and we have players starting in ninth grade who have never played or a little bit but when they are juniors and seniors they play varsity matches.”

Cotton is a retired attorney who during his legal career directed the Alaska Judicial Council for twelve years, the Alaska Legal Services Pro Bono program and served as an administrative justice judge for just over a decade. He also ran the Anchorage Community Theater for four years.

Cotton has even retired from tennis school a few times over the years. He started as a coach at West for 10 years. He spent two years at Dimond, from 2014-15, where the Lynx broke the Eagles’ consecutive winning streak in just his first year with the program. He returned to West where he has been for the past five years.

West High Tennis

Sedwick competes exclusively in mixed doubles and finished third in that format at last year’s state tournament alongside his doubles partner Ava Smith.

“I’m coming back hoping to finish second and maybe win everything,” said Sedwick.

His two older brothers played at West. His brother Robbie, who graduated last spring, has been part of four state title-winning teams and finished runner-up in boys’ singles in 2018.

Senior Eva Lief has won back-to-back doubles titles in 2020 and 2021 and is looking to make it a third straight year to wrap up her final season.

Her attitude at the start of the season is to keep the streak of back-to-back championships alive while having fun.

Lief enjoys participating in a team sport that also has a strong individual component.

“It’s definitely different for tennis, I think, because it’s a team sport, but there’s mainly just you and maybe one other person out there,” Lief said. “It’s not like football, where there’s always a lot of people. It gives a lot of pressure.”

But having a partner and friend to play with helps relieve some of that pressure.

Lief has a “very carefree dynamic” with her doubles partner and fellow reigning state champion Antonia Yu.

“Antonia is one of my best friends, so it’s quite nice because we can laugh together on the pitch and hang out later, off the pitch,” said Lief.

West High Tennis

The two share some of the same classes and often hang out outside of school and after practice.

“It makes it a lot easier to play and I feel like I play a lot better with someone I really like,” she said.

She says repeating as champions is a priority for both, but the dynamic duo could end up breaking up this year.

Cotton can play against Yu in singles as she and Lief are his top two players and two-time champion Athena Clendaniel and two-time runner-up Sophie Green graduated in the spring.

“I’m considering doubles and singles games with these two,” Cotton said. “They are my best two players and it’s hard to fit the best two in just one league.”

He says these types of decisions are “always the hardest” but his job as head coach is to put his players in the best position to maximize potential to score points as a team.

“I want her to play me, but I’m a bit selfish,” Lief said. “If she has to play singles, I’m so happy for her too.”

Despite losing both Clendaniel and Green and two-time boys’ singles state champion Charlie Rush by graduation, Cotton is confident in this year’s team and their ability to continue their dominance.

“We have a good team again,” Cotton said.

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