BROOKSVILLE — The first year of high school can often be tough as kids adjust to a new school and friends while keeping up with tougher academics.
Delanie McCabe proved to be an exception to the rule.
With her vigor on the tennis court, McCabe became a standout last season at Nature Coast Technical High School. The Sharks reached the state tournament with the freshman phenom leading all of Hernando County with 21 singles victories.
The road to success started for McCabe more than four years ago. While attending West Hernando Middle School, she became serious about tennis. She had always played with her family but had never really entertained the idea of dedicating herself to learning the intricacies of the game.
"I think tennis is the first sport I ever really enjoyed," McCabe said. "I played every sport you can think of growing up, but I never really took up tennis seriously until I was in seventh grade."
Just before high school, she began to work with John Downey of Ace Performance Tennis. Downey is a U.S. Tennis Association-certified instructor, and one of the first things he noticed about McCabe was her work ethic. She wanted to become a great player.
Downey's wife and business partner, Louise, is the coach at Nature Coast. Under her watch, the future of the program is bright, in large part because of players such as McCabe.
"She's mentally tough and mentally determined," Louise Downey said. "You can't teach that. It's a gift."
As the No. 4 singles player for the Sharks, McCabe went 21-3 on the season, but that was just the beginning. Her real impact came in doubles. With three different partners, she went a combined 18-6, including 10-2 with fellow freshman Mallorie Pickersgill.
Pickersgill and McCabe went on to win the Class 2A, Region 3 No. 2 doubles championship last season with a victory over a tandem from Wiregrass Ranch. The win was key in helping propel the Sharks to the state tournament, an accomplishment that McCabe hopes to repeat this year.
"We bring so many of our best players back," McCabe said. "There's no reason why we shouldn't be able to work together and get back to where we were."
As proud as she is of her prep achievements, McCabe recently had a sentimental moment on the court.
The Nature Coast Tennis Foundation has been holding the Junior Singles Tournament for the past four years at Delta Woods Park in Spring Hill. After local standout Simon Toftegaard died last summer, the organization decided to memorialize him by renaming the tournament after him. The tournament was Jan. 16 and 17.
As a neighbor and friend, McCabe was close to Toftegaard, and she took the news of his death especially hard. But she was inspired to win the high school division of this year's event to honor him.
"She was down in her first match to Shelby Marrero, and I could see how much it mattered to her," Louise Downey said. "She looked like she was talking to Simon. She was determined to win in his memory."
McCabe bounced back, and in the championship match, she swept Nature Coast teammate Kaitlyn Bugden in straight sets (6-1, 6-3).
The moment was touching for everyone on hand as the trophies were awarded by Toftegaard's family. His mother, Irmelin, his father, Toreen, and his sister, Sara, all made the trip from their home in Denmark to see the festivities. Two of Simon's former coaches, Nature Coast coach Tom Brown and Challenger K-8 coach Brent Teitelman, were also involved.
"The night before the tournament began, I cleared a spot on my shelf for the trophy because I was so determined to win," McCabe said. "There were times during my matches where things would get tough, but when it was over, I was just so happy.
"I could see his parents watching me walk off the court, and I started to cry."