Sweat and suspense.
The ingredients of a state title. Add perseverance, stir in some grunts (for accent) and you have the recipe for the Times all-county high school tennis players of the year.
Laura Berendt captured the state Class 2A singles crown with pure grit, if not pizazz.
The Canterbury School standout first outlasted Thom Howard's Amanda Earhart in a three-set thriller at the district championships. A week later, Berendt cruised all the way to the final round at state, where she dismantled Bradenton Academy's Bojana Jankovic 7-6 (8-6), 6-3 with a tortuous baseline game punctuated by her characteristic grunts.
In defeating Jankovic, Berendt not only preserved her perfect season in singles, she was the only player at the state tournament to defeat a female competitor from Bradenton Academy _ the eventual state champion. And she was just a sophomore.
B.J. Stearns, a junior this year at Thom Howard Academy, was close to claiming the same honor in singles, but didn't achieve it until doubles time.
Stearns, the boys player of the year, starred in two championship dramas. In a wild repartee of cross-court winners, Stearns was unable to strike last, falling to Carlos Drada of Bradenton Academy 4-6, 7-5, 6-4. But Stearns and Ryan Shupe found revenge against Drada and Hide Sakamoto in doubles, downing the Bradenton duo 6-3, 3-6, 6-3.
The doubles victory helped carry Thom Howard to a second-place state finish behind Bradenton, while Berendt's heroics gave Canterbury its first district title and a satisfying third place at state.
Stearns and Berendt's pure talent is undeniable. Stearns is ranked No. 1 in the state in the 18-and-under division and a member of the U.S. National Team, while Berendt, just 15 years old, is ranked No. 2 in Florida in 18-and-under.
What makes them even better, for Pinellas County at least, is that they're not finished with their high school careers.
In fact, all of the boys on the Times first team, except for Thom Howard's No. 2 singles player, Paul Stefka, have at least a year left. Ryan and Beau Shupe from Thom Howard, twins who were juniors, were undefeated in regular-season singles this year. Matt Cozad, a sophomore at Lakewood, went 17-0 until losing in the state tournament.
On the girls side, Seminole graduate Rachel Fiset went undefeated through the district tournament, while Clearwater Central Catholic graduate Karen Modjeski lost just once during the regular season.
The Canterbury crew _ all of whom have state and national rankings _ round out the first team and also offer more playing years. Stephanie Nickitas played No. 4 singles for Canterbury, though she is ranked first in the state in the 16s and is a member of the U.S. Junior National Team. Kristen Sanderson and Callie Creighton (sophomores) each won easy matches in the district tournament, then fought valiantly before falling in the state finals.
All-county tennis teams
Players of the Year
B.J. Stearns, Thom Howard Academy; Laura Berendt, Canterbury
Boys first team
B.J. Stearns, Paul Stefka, Ryan and Beau Shupe, Thom Howard Academy; Matt Cozad, Lakewood.
Kent Wright, Thom Howard; Ryan McKinney, Clearwater; David Figurski, Countryside; Mike Shahriari, Clearwater Central Catholic; Jason Rancke, Canterbury; Matt Holsopple, East Lake; Mario Toledo, Derrick Silvers, Chris Starnes and Jeff Worman, Seminole; Pipe Douangboupha and Chuck Brown, Tarpon Springs.
Girls first team
Laura Berendt, Kristen Sanderson, Callie Creighton and Stephanie Nickitas, Canterbury; Rachel Fiset, Seminole; Karen Modjeski, Clearwater Central Catholic.
Amanda Earhart, Thom Howard; Kristina Kreye, Keswick Christian; Denise Herbenick, CCC; Megan Mahood, Countryside; Suzanne Flament, East Lake; Helen Yotseff, Seminole; Nouvelle Gebhart, Georgette Gregg and Laura Malanik, St. Petersburg.