Maryann Thorp learned just what she got herself into.
The first-year coach invited all 36 of her players on the Kent-Meridian High School girls tennis team to her home for a team potluck.
It was more like an international Thanksgiving. There was trubochki (a Russian dessert), pad thai, lumpia (pastries of Chinese origin), yakisoba noodles and curry among the many food options. Thorp’s kitchen was so packed with food, she and her husband had to set up a spare table just for desserts.
Shelby Cornish, a junior who is Filipino, said she didn’t have time to make anything.
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“I bought some butterfly cookies from Safeway,” Cornish said. “It wasn’t so cultural.”
But Thorp was in disbelief. Not just at the variety of foods, but the great quantities each brought.
“I had to tell them, ‘You cannot leave this here,’ ” Thorp said. “My husband was like, ‘Whoa, I think I just gained, like, 5 pounds.’ ”
Thorp played collegiate tennis at the University of San Diego and the University of Washington and previously coached at Kennedy Catholic before returning to her alma mater this season. Much has changed since Thorp won the 4A state singles title at Kent-Meridian in 1979.
Of the 36 players on the team there are more than 15 nationalities represented. The team can speak 23 languages, including Amharic (Ethiopia), Burmese, Cantonese, Fon (West Africa), Ilocano (Philippines), Luganda (Uganda), Nepalese, Swahili, Taishanese (China) and Tagalog (Philippines).
“When I was here years ago it was predominately white and it was completely different,” Thorp said. “This area is so much bigger now and more developed and more people coming from all over.”
Thorp left Kennedy Catholic because her youngest of four sons, Jamie Thorp, had graduated (and this year played tennis at Loyola Marymount University). So she and her husband were finally empty-nesters.
They spent almost three weeks traveling Italy. It was her first time out of the country.
“Then I came back and I heard about this job, and at the same time I was feeling really sad I wasn’t coaching,” Thorp said. “I was like, ‘Trip’s over, now what?’ ”
And how could K-M principal Wade Barringer pass on an alum whose picture still hangs in the school’s gymnasium?
But he also explained all that has changed since 1979. More than 76 percent of its 2,092 students are of an ethnicity other than white, whereas even 10 years ago that ratio was much closer to 50-50, according to records kept by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
A multitude of low-income housing options have since been built around the school — attractive to families who might have moved into the area with little. Barringer explained that as pockets of a particular ethnicity have moved in, more have followed.
About a third of the students at Kent-Meridian this year are or have been English Language Learners (ELL), and the school has a 42 percent mobility rate — meaning almost half of K-M’s enrollment transfers in or out of the area every year.
“We started talking to her about how the demographic had changed and that we are not a predominately white school,” Barringer said. “And because we serve a very high-impact, high-poverty population, our kids don’t come from feeder programs or select programs, and most of the kids we get for most of our teams — especially baseball, fastpitch, soccer and tennis — might be picking up a bat or a racket for the first time.
“But we don’t necessarily need a coach of color to represent our student demographic. I need someone that cares about kids and is willing to work with kids.”
Thorp emptied her closet full of old tennis rackets and handed them out to players who needed them the first day of tryouts. She also pushed to get the school’s courts regularly cleaned and got the team new uniforms, even though she was told the school didn’t have enough money for either.
“She’s like our mom,” Cornish said. “She’s always bringing snacks like Gatorade and granola bars. And it’s not like it’s just once a week. It’s often.”
“Of all the coaches we’ve had, I love her the best,” said Bridgit Sevoyan, a senior who has learned to speak Russian, Armenian, English, Turkish and Spanish in that order. “She’s so organized and really connects with everyone on the team.
“We didn’t know each other well last year. Everyone was kind of in their own group. But this year it’s like we’re one group.”
Kent-Meridian won one of its 10 matches last season. But after losing its first match, 4-1, to Curtis this season, the Royals followed with wins in two of their next three. They finished the season 5-8 overall and 3-8 in the 4A South Puget Sound League North.
“Not everybody wants to come and be a coach at K-M, and that’s not because our kids aren’t great,” Barringer said. “We don’t have a history, or a recent history, of winning programs for our smaller athletic teams.
“So when you have someone passionate enough to want to come back and give back to the community and work with kids, like kids who might not have a lot of skills or experience in tennis, she’s right here in the community and she’s giving back to the school she graduated from — it’s hard to say no. ”
But Thorp said she gains more from her players than they do from her.
“Coming in with this whole new family, I’ve found that I just love coaching,” Thorp said. “I love it. My husband says, ‘You’re obsessed with it, 24/7.’ It’s just so much fun.
“And it’s fun to get to know people from different countries and different walks of life. It’s not always pretty. A lot of kids come in here with zero. But I love working with them, knowing that you are helping them and that this is something fun.”