ZEPHYRHILLS — At last week’s district tournament, Zephyrhills junior Sarah Vande Berg faced little resistance in capturing her second straight individual singles title.
Vande Berg, the tournament’s top seed, waltzed into the championship match at No. 1 singles. She smoothly dispatched Land O’Lakes’ Wenyi Gu in an efficient 6-1, 6-1 performance in the final.
The district tournament was merely a warmup for Vande Berg. The state tennis finals, though, are where the real competition begins.
Vande Berg knows through experience the dramatic jump in skill level at state. Last year, she won the Class 2A, District 6 title but was ousted in the state tournament’s first round by Suwanee’s Sydnie Sine 7-5, 6-4.
“It’s definitely better competition there,” Vande Berg said. “These girls at state are playing a lot of tennis year-round.”
But so is Vande Berg.
The junior trains every day. Three times a week, she visits her coach for two hours a session. On days she doesn’t practice with her coach, she works out on her own to improve her serve and fitness or hits with her father. On the weekends, she’s usually at a nearby USTA junior tournament.
“I think I’m a lot different from most high school players,” she said. “I play tennis year-round. I’m not a seasonal player. I want to go to college for tennis. I play all the time. It’s my life.”
Zephyrhills girls coach Lorraine Hinkle believes that the constant court time will help Vande Berg last a little longer this go-round at states.
“I think last year was a really great experience for her,” Hinkle said. “She didn’t really know what she would be up against. I think this year she’s ready.”
Since last season, Vande Berg, a baseliner with a consistent serve and a powerful backhand, has gotten more consistency from her groundstrokes. That helped her run through the regular season with only one defeat, a three-set loss to River Ridge’s Tijana Subotic.
Vande Berg also qualified for states in doubles with partner Sydney Owens after winning in straight sets in the district No. 1 doubles final. Last year, Vande Berg and teammate Chelsea Smith earned a spot in the state tournament draw and won a match before bowing out in the semifinals.
“I definitely just want to try to make it further than I did last year,” Vande Berg said. “It was a close match, my singles match that I lost. Even if I just win one more match, that’s what I’m hoping for.”
Vande Berg has been training every day since last season’s loss for the upcoming challenge. Whatever the outcome, Vande Berg won’t be caught off guard by the quality of the opposition.
“I’m prepared mentally,” she said.
Class 3A: 8 a.m. Monday-Wednesday. Sanlando Park, Altamonte Springs (teams); Lake Brantley High (individuals)
Class 2A: 8 a.m. Wednesday-Friday. Red Bug Lake Park, Casselberry (team); Sylvan Lake Park, Sanford (individuals)
Other local state qualifiers
Wiregrass Ranch boys (Class 3A): The Bulls — Courage Okungbowa (1), Spencer Ong (2), Eric Busch (3), Jaime Feliciano (4), Dan Helfrich (5) and Koustubh Ramesh (2 doubles) — haven’t lost a team match and have dropped only three individual matches all season.
Nature Coast boys (Class 2A): Third time’s a charm for Nature Coast, which reached regionals each of the past three seasons but finally break through this year with a state appearance. Tyler Schwefringhaus (1), David Cross (2), Andrew Lund (3), Zenon Kouts (4) and Josh Weaver (5) make up the Sharks' lineup.
Colin Roller, Land O’Lakes (Class 2A): The junior has something to prove in his third state appearance after going winless as a freshman and sophomore.
Roller/Harrison Luong, Land O’Lakes (Class 2A): Roller and Luong were straight-sets winners over Wesley Chapel’s Cameron Roth and Diego Armas in the district final.
Tijana Subotic, River Ridge (Class 3A): Subotic won her first district title in singles by upending Wiregrass Ranch’s Hannah Still to earn the automatic trip to state.
Subotic/Jordyn Garcia, River Ridge (Class 3A): Subotic is in the individual doubles state draw for the third time in four seasons. As a sophomore, Subotic and partner Nicola Wellman won three matches to make it to the individual final. Garcia, also a senior, is making her first state appearance.