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Allison Clark on quick rise to center stage

Allison Clark's first attempts at athletics were less than successful.

"I used to play other sports, but I really wasn't very good at them at all," she recalled. "I mean it. I was bad. . . . And when I first started playing tennis, I was absolutely awful. But I just kept working at it and I got better."

The Hernando High junior got better fast. Really fast.

"She has had more growth in a short period of time than any other player I have coached," Hernando girls coach Sue Austin recalled. "I mean, she was sharing the No. 5 (singles) position for us in her freshman year, and she played so much tennis in a year that she moved up to No. 2."

Clark, 16, now is the Leopards' No. 1 singles player, and she has handled her speedy ascension very well. She is a solid 3-2 against opposing schools' top players despite problems in the first half of the season.

The right-hander has dealt with a muscle strain in her right arm that kept her out for more than a week and with the distraction of a large role in the school play, which finally wraps up this weekend.

"I haven't been playing really good lately, and a lot has to do with me being in the play," Clark said. "It's hard to do both tennis and play practices, and I haven't been playing tennis as much as I need to. When the play's over, I think I can get back to playing where I was."

But Clark has not been too shabby. Of her two losses, one was to Citrus High sophomore Lauren Cornell, the defending Gulf Coast Athletic Conference player of the year, and the other was to Crystal River senior Charla Copp.

In previous matches, Clark regularly has beaten Copp, but this match was suspended for 1{ hours due to rain. When it resumed at 7 p.m., Clark recalled, "I wasn't in the best frame of mind."

Austin is impressed with her lead player's speedy development. Sharing the No. 5 slot as a freshman, Clark often substituted for the team's No. 2 player when she was absent.

"Allison has come up through the ranks very quickly," Austin said. "If we needed a sub for No. 2 she'd ask for it; we needed someone to meet the challenge and she was ready to do it. She's always wanted to play the best competition."

On the other hand, Austin said, it has been tough for Clark that the team has had to move her up the lineup so quickly, increasing the caliber of opposition before Clark could become dominant at a lower level.

"I think that's an important step in a player's development, and Allison's never had that opportunity," Austin said. "She's come across some very good players, and had some very tough matches, but she's always played well and handled it with grace. We've seen some fabulous tennis from her."

Clark hopes to continue that trend. Though she has enjoyed her part in the school play (as one of four dancing angels who support the main character, Reno Sweeney, in Anything Goes), she plans to pass on the school play next year in order to improve her game.

"I love playing tennis," Clark said. "It's one of the only things that really makes me happy."

Clark is a baseline player with an adequate serve and a strong forehand, but she truly excels in service return. She has honed that skill by returning serves from hard-hitting boys in practice.

"I always hit with guys, and that's helped a lot," Clark said. "There is a guy I play with who serves the ball so hard, I used to be so scared of it. But now I can return it. So now all the other girls' serves just look so soft."

Clark listed her weaknesses as net play and _ until recently _ her backhand. But she only recently switched to a two-handed backhand and that has improved her play considerably.

"It turns out I have a natural swing with the two-handed backhand," she said. "It used to be a weakness, and now it's one of my strengths."

Clark said she is hoping to have a shot at the conference championship, and she should be helped by a change that went into effect this year. Each conference school meets twice, and previously, both matches would count in conference standings.

This season, only the second meeting counts, so Clark has a clean slate against Citrus and Crystal River.

"As soon as the play's over and I can get back into it, if I work hard I think maybe I could break the Citrus girl," Clark said. "I could really have a good chance at conference."