AUBURN — The letter addressed to Francesca Lally told a tempting tale underneath the University of Southern Maine’s distinct, blue-and-gold letterhead.
We’d like you to consider playing NCAA Division III tennis at our school, read the note. Funny thing is, Lally, then an Edward Little High School junior, hadn’t swung the racket for her Auburn school teams since eighth grade.
Inspired by the recruiting overture — and hamstrung by a rule that prohibited Edward Little students from playing two sports in one season — the athlete known far and wide as Frankie swapped her outdoor track and field throwing implements for a tennis racket.
That’s when opening the mail became more frustrating than flattering.
“The second day of tennis season,” Lally said, “I got letters from Cornell and Lehigh looking for my track results. And I didn’t have any to give them.”
Lally’s father, Mike, took his family’s grievances with EL’s administrative decision to the school committee and won.
This spring, that reversal made Frankie Lally the first EL athlete in many years to tackle two sports simultaneously.
And now everyone understands why. Lally owns the top Class A girls’ javelin throw in the state (“By six feet,” crowed EL coach Rebecca Hefty) and is the top-seeded player from her region in the state singles tennis tournament.
“It’s outrageous, isn’t it? I think she wanted to prove people wrong who doubted that it was possible,” EL girls’ tennis coach Shawn Rice said. “I’ve never coached another athlete like her.”
Detractors may have worried that her body would crack under the strain.
Lally’s lone loss on the tennis court was to freshman Maisie Silverman of Brunswick, thought by many to be the top player in the state.
In addition to her throws of more than 120 feet in the javelin, Lally’s shot put and discus distances have met or exceeded preseason goals.
“The proof is in her performances,” Hefty said. “I’ll just throw out a challenge and she’ll take off with it.”
There were whispers that her academic or social activities might suffer.
In addition to her continuing classroom and sports success, Lally took on a significant role in the senior class play. She also is a softball umpire.
“She has blown both of us away with her ability to manage it,” Rice said. “I don’t know what she’s given up. Maybe sleep.”
Then, of course, there were thoughts — perhaps the most legitimate objection of all — that tennis and track’s schedules would overlap too frequently.
It only happened once, and it paid positive, life-altering dividends.
Thanks to last week’s rain, EL was forced to make up a tennis match against Mt. Ararat on Saturday.
“Right up to the last minute she was trying to figure out how she could do both and I was like, ‘Frankie, it’s not going to happen,’ ” Hefty said.
Lally chose a long bus ride to Bangor for a track meet. She won the javelin, achieving a personal record with University of Maine coaches in attendance.
Two days later, Lally received an email from Orono, inviting her to join the Black Bears next year.
“I’m glad it worked out,” Lally said. “I do love the sport of tennis. I know I’m not as dominant in it as I could be in track.”
Thanks to weather-related adjustments, Lally won’t have to make that choice again this season.
The opening rounds of the MPA singles tournament were moved from Friday and Saturday to Monday.
Lally was planning on competing in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference track championship, anyway. Now she’ll do so without worrying about what she is missing on the court.
One of the school’s all-time 3-point shooters in basketball and a soccer standout, as well, Lally didn’t gravitate to track as a spring activity until freshman year.
In middle school, she achieved a national ranking under the watchful eye of Anita Murphy in the Lewiston Recreation tennis program.
Mike Lally shared his daughter’s agony over having to choose between a sport that she loved and the sport that could provide a foundation for her academic future.
“For me it’s always been about providing opportunities for kids to be successful, and as a result feeling good about themselves,” he said. “I’m very proud of what a complete person Frankie has grown to be.”
On days when she had a home tennis match, Lally stayed at the track from the end of school until 3 p.m., getting in her throws before climbing the hill and hitting winners.
When Lally was faced with a midweek track meet or a lengthy practice, she would retreat to Lewiston’s lighted tennis courts and hit the ball with her cousin after dark.
“Does she get the full benefit of every practice? No, but I think that’s good,” Hefty said, “because she gives 150 percent while she’s here.”
Lally hasn’t given much thought to being a pioneer at her own school or perhaps giving athletes in other towns the courage to push for similar dispensation.
To her, the issue is much simpler.
“It was ridiculous,” Lally said. “It wasn’t a big deal for me to do both. It was a stupid rule to begin with.”