By Bill Foley
The scene has repeated itself several times.
An opposing coach will go out of his or her way to tell Butte Central tennis coach Becky Hancock about her player Zoe Sullivan.
“The coach of the other team comes up to me and says, ‘My girl loved playing her,’” Hancock said of her senior singles player. “‘She’s the nicest girl she’s played all year.’ I’ll say, ‘Zoe, you’re not supposed to be that nice, and she just laughs.”
That’s just Zoe being Zoe.
When people describe the soon-to-be-graduating Maroon, “nice” is often the first word that comes up. Other words are usually, “genuine,” “coachable” and “character.”
“Nice,” seems to be a word Sullivan takes great pride in.
“There’s that competitive edge that you want to win,” Sullivan said. “But I learned to have more fun with it. When I play someone, I want her to remember me like, ‘Oh, she was super nice. I want to play her again.’ I don’t want them to be, ‘Oh, that girl. No one wants to play her.’”
Hancock said Sullivan will often apologize to her opponent after hitting a shot too hard or too good.
“It’s never fun to play anybody mean,” Hancock said. “The thing that’s going to take you in life is that character, and Zoe has character. She’s just a great kid to coach.”
In her four years on the BC tennis team, Sullivan has epitomized the gentlemen nature of the sport. This year, she has taken it to a new level. That’s because she has a new-found perspective that few high school seniors could possibly have.
That is largely because Sullivan spent her Christmas vacation in Ghana, cleaning teeth and helping care for children in an orphanage with a group organized by Montana Dental Outreach Teams.
“It was amazing,” Sullivan said of the African country. “People always ask to describe it. It’s just so different. I can’t describe it. You need to see it.”
Sullivan left on Christmas Eve for the 10-day stay in Ghana, missing out on Christmas with her family — immediate and extended — in Spokane, Washington.
“I missed all my family in Spokane, for sure,” Sullivan said. “We always go over to visit family, and I missed that. But I definitely don’t regret going. I loved going.
“I was working at the orphanage most of the time,” Sullivan said of the facility that included more than 50 children. “Sister Stan, she was running it. She does an amazing job keeping it nice and clean.”
When she wasn’t assisting with dental cleanings, Sullivan was getting to know the children.
“When I needed a break from cleaning teeth, I went over there and was playing music with the kids with this other lady, playing the ukulele,” she said.
While she was working in a very poor country, Sullivan said she was happy the entire time.
“None of them were sad, so I wasn’t sad to see them,” Sullivan said. “They all were healthy, they were happy. They liked where they were, and they knew they were safe.”
“It was definitely sad leaving because you could tell they were sad to see us go. They were like, ‘No, can’t you stay and play?’ That made me sad. They wanted more interaction.”
Sullivan returned to the Mining City with a new outlook on life.
“It just makes you realize that there’s so much more to life,” she said of the trip. “You worry about these little things, but in five years they don’t matter at all. In five years, I could go back over there, and it would matter to me. They just need so much, and they love having you there.”
Sullivan, a 4.0 student who will be the salutatorian of the BC Class of 2018, plans to take care of people after she graduates from the University of Montana, where she will study speech pathology.
She plans to be a speech therapist.
“Then I could work with kids at like a school district, or I could work with like stroke victims and the hospital and stuff,” she said.
Sullivan, who teaches swimming lessons at the Butte Family YMCA during the summer, particularly likes working with kids.
“It’s fun,” she said. “I love it.”
Hancock, who is also the BC volleyball coach, has been Sullivan’s head coach in both of her high school sports for four years. She said Sullivan has always epitomized the team-first player.
“She puts her teammates ahead of herself,” the coach said. “In volleyball, you have to put your team ahead of yourself, and she’s the perfect example of that. Even in tennis, she’s like that. She’s always helping everyone else out and guiding them.”
Sullivan, whose younger sister Sophie is a sophomore who also plays volleyball and tennis for the Maroons, played two years on the BC varsity volleyball team. She was a junior varsity player when the Maroons had the powerhouse teams of 2014 and 2015.
“She really worked hard to earn herself a spot on the varsity team,” Hancock said.
The past two seasons, Sullivan was a reliable defensive specialist in BC’s backcourt.
“I love volleyball, it’s definitely fun,” Sullivan said. “I’m really going to miss it. I’m definitely going to miss tennis. I think this is my favorite sport. I like being in the outdoors, being by myself.”
Sullivan went to tennis camps with longtime Butte coach Mavis Bentley from the ages of about 7 to 12. After stepping away from the sport for a couple of years, she decided to go out for the team as a freshman at Butte Central.
“In freshman year when I came out, I didn’t know if I wanted to do tennis,” Sullivan said. “I was pretty nervous. Then I started, and I immediately fell in love with it.”
Sullivan, the daughter of Brian and Shannon Sullivan, played No. 4 singles as a freshman. She moved up to No. 2 as a sophomore, No. 1 as a junior and back to No. 2 as a senior.
“There was a difference from my freshman year, when I was No. 4, to my sophomore year, when I was No. 2,” she said. “I was just getting beat. Bad.”
Then the Southwestern A Divisional tournament happened, and Sullivan just missed qualifying for the Class A State tournament.
“That was the year during divisionals that I picked it up,” she said. “I was the fifth person, and four go to state. I was pretty excited. I was like, ‘If I can make it this far my sophomore year, I can make it just as far any other year.’”
Sullivan was also close to making state last season.
“The last couple of years she’s been right up there and just missed out,” Hancock said. “This is her year. She’s got it. It just has to all come together.”
Sullivan, who will take her final test at BC on Tuesday, seems to be heading to the divisional tournament in the Bitterroot Valley feeling free of any pressure.
“I want to. I’m definitely going to try,” she said of qualifying for state. “Everyone is super talented. There’s a lot of really good athletes this.”
Only four singles players advance to state, and the tournament will include a field of about 20 players.
“I definitely want to make it,” Sullivan said. “If I don’t, it’s not going to be the end of the world for me. I’ve had fun all four years, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ll be happy for whoever goes to state.”
More than anything, Sullivan is going to do what she can to make sure her and her opponent both have a good time on the court.
“I always want to have fun with it,” she said. “I never want to make anyone feel like I am rude to them.”