Paige Olson

Paige Olson, a tennis star and academic standout at Century High School, poses for a portrait on court. (Photo By Noah Scialom / June 24, 2012)

Domination is a foreign concept in the modern-day world of sports. Champions rarely repeat, and the playing field seems more level than ever.

There are two exceptions to this rule in Carroll County.

Paige Olson began and ended her Century tennis career as a champion, and Hannah Oneda of Winters Mill simply ran away from the competition in cross country and track and field.

Their exceptional athletic achievements, standout performances in the classroom, and a willingness to serve their school and community have earned Olson and Oneda the Carroll Eagle's Spring Student-Athlete Award.


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Love-ing tennis

By the time she enrolled at Century High School in fall 2008, Paige Olson already was a seasoned tennis player. Her experience showed in spring 2009, when the Knights' freshman won the county singles' championship.

But there was something missing for Olson. She could have been the first four-time county champion, but the Sykesville resident followed a different path.

Olson continued her studies at Century, but left the school's tennis team to compete in sanctioned U.S. Tennis Association tournaments.

"I wasn't getting the competition that I needed in the county," said Olson, explaining her decision to forego two years of high school play. "Playing against someone better helps you get better, and USTA helped me. My ground strokes were stronger, and my serve was a lot better.

"Plus, a few years ago, my confidence was not good at all. I'd be really hard on myself if I lost or didn't play well. But I learned that against the better players, if I played my hardest I couldn't get down on myself. ... I was mentally stronger when I came back this year."

After two years of USTA play, Olson returned to the Century team this spring. To say she was welcomed back with open arms is an understatement.

"She was very inspirational, and her return gave us a boost in both team morale and level of play," said Amber Geiger, the girls' tennis coach at Century. "She was like a peer mentor to the other girls. Paige would see different things in their games, and without me even noticing she would help them. I think she influenced a lot of our younger players to do more."

Olson was excited to be back with her Knight teammates.

"I could not wait to get back," she said with a smile. "This year was a lot more fun than my freshman year. I loved watching my teammates play after I was done. I loved cheering for my team, which was something I couldn't do at USTA. I felt like the team was so close this year, and my teammates were always so supportive of me. "

The competition wasn't so happy.

The Century senior dominated opponents like no player in county history. In her 16 regular-season matches, Olson won 180 of 186 games. She won every match in straight sets, and only once did an opponent win more than three games in an entire match.

To her chagrin, Olson didn't get to play defending county and state champion Taylor Neudecker of North Carroll.

"That was a big surprise when she didn't come back," Olson said. "I thought she'd want to defend her state title. I was a little disappointed."

After taking the District VII regional title in straight sets, Olson entered the state tournament as the No. 1 seed. Straight-set wins over North Caroline's Madison Parks and Cierra Plummer of Surrattsville moved Olson into a state semifinal matchup with Anna Rozenburg of Bethesda-Chevy Chase.

"I'd wanted (to win states) forever," said Olson, who started playing tennis at age 8 and her first tournament when she was 10. "My first match wasn't easy, but I was playing well and kind of breezed through that one. My second match was against someone I'd played against and lost to in USTA, and I knew going out that I'd have to put all my energy and focus into it. Once I won, it was pretty much the best feeling ever.

"But in the semis, it was very frustrating. I just made too many mistakes."

Her 6-1, 6-4 loss to Rozenburg ended Olson's dream of a state title. She finished third in the state when her consolation-round opponent defaulted, and concluded her final season of high school tennis with a 26-1 record.

Olson's demanding schedule of USTA tournaments required her to spend a lot of time away from home, but that didn't affect Olson's academics or her willingness to serve her community. She completed her high school career with a 4.01 weighted grade point average (3.54 unweighted). Her schoolwork included six Advanced Placement courses.

"The USTA circuit helped me academically, because I learned how to manage my time," she said. "I couldn't go out on the weekends and goof off. If tennis was what I wanted, I had to play tennis and get my school work done."

Olson also took time to help her school and community. A member of the National Honor Society for the past three years, she volunteered for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life.

"I knew people that had battled cancer, and it was really hard on them," she said. "I loved doing Relay for Life. I didn't know how powerful it was until I was there, and it really affected me."

For three years, Olson also served as a summer camp counselor and tennis instructor at a Baltimore-area church where her grandmother worked.

"I just love working with kids," she said. "They have so much energy and they're so happy, and they made me feel really good."

Olson's immediate future will unfold at Sacred Heart University, a small Catholic-affiliated school with 3,500 undergraduate students, located in Fairfield, Conn.

"The school had the program that I wanted, and good tennis," Olson said. "After my official visit, I walked off the campus and had a huge smile on my face. My mom saw me and said 'this is where you're going to go to school,' and I agreed. I loved everything about it."

The Pioneers, who lost four seniors from their ten-player roster, were 9-13 overall and 3-3 in the Northeast Conference. Olson hopes to earn the first or second singles' position.

"College competition is going to be so tough," said Olson, the daughter of Erik and Theresa Olson and older sister of Kelly, a rising junior at Century. "There are some very good players in my conference, and it will be completely different from high school tennis."

Olson plans to major in exercise science at Sacred Heart. The six-year program could lead Olson to a career in a variety of fields, including physical therapy, sports medicine, and athletic training.

"I've always been interested in that field, because I've been around sports for so long," Olson said. "I took anatomy my junior year, and it was my favorite class. My sister has been through surgeries on her hip, and I've seen her go through a lot of physical therapy. Seeing how (physical therapy) has had such a positive impact on her life, I want to do that for other people."

Running away

Most of her opponents didn't see the determination on Hannah Oneda's face as she pushed toward the finish line. As the race got longer, they could barely see her unique running shoes and her flying pigtails.

The reason was simple: they were too far behind the Winters Mill senior to get a good view of her as she raced toward another victory.

Oneda was a late comer to cross country and track and field. Her first Winters Mill sports were soccer and basketball.

But she switched to track and field late in her freshman year, and once she made the change, Oneda didn't look back.

She became the most dominant distance runner in the state. In two key events, the 1,600 and 3,200, Oneda was the definition of excellence. In three years, she won nine individual state championships in cross country, indoor track and field and outdoor track and field. Oneda won state Class 2A indoor and outdoor titles in the 1,600 and 3,200 events in her junior and senior seasons.

She was also a state cross country champ last fall, with her time of 18:28 setting the Hereford High School course, Class 2A, and overall state records. Oneda outpaced the rest of the 2A field by nearly a minute and a half.

In November, she was named the Gatorade/ESPN Maryland Girls' Cross Country Runner of the Year.

"She always did more than she was required to do," said Kelly Gruber, Oneda's cross country coach at Winters Mill. "She didn't need much motivation. And when Hannah finished her race, she always came back to cheer her teammates on."

Oneda didn't win any of her nine championships by a step or two. She usually obliterated the competition. She took her first two state titles at the 2011 indoor state meet, winning the 1,600 in 5:07.35 and following with a 10:54.09 at 3,200 meters.

She repeated her championship double at the 2011 outdoor meet, winning the 1,600 in 5:12.96 and taking the 3,200 with a time of 11:13.65.

In her final indoor state meet last February, Oneda set Class 2A state records in both events. She beat Tiffany Lang of Oakland Mills in the 1,600 by over 20 seconds, and blitzed the field in the 3,200. Her time of 10:45.67 was a full 45 seconds better than runner-up Emily Ruppel of Loch Raven — the only runner to finish within a minute of Oneda.

Oneda continued the onslaught in her last outdoor state championship, last month at Morgan State's Hughes Stadium. With a time of 5:03.96, she took the 1,600 title by nine seconds over Poolesville's Chelsie Pennello. But her best performance came in the 3,200, where she bested Glenelg's Julia Nardone by 25 seconds. Her time of 10:52.01 shattered the Class 2A state record set by Atholton's Carolyn Forde in 1982.

Oneda nearly pulled off a rare trifecta at her final meet. She finished fifth in the 800 meters, just three seconds behind winner Caitlyn Boyles of Largo.

"The goals that I set for myself are faster than the records," Oneda said. "If I get the records, that's fine. I don't think (the magnitude of) it will ever really hit me, because I was running and not thinking about setting history forever. I just wanted to challenge myself."

Her coach at Winters Mill, Stan Jones, doesn't think he will ever see a runner like Oneda again.

"She's an anomaly," Jones said. "Hannah had one speed: go. She never took it easy. There often was no one for her to run with, so she had to race against herself. What I saw in Hannah was a great work ethic. She was the last person at practice every day."

Her running achievements might have been helped by a unique pair of shoes that don't in any way resemble what most runners wear.

"My friend Amber Slater and I read the book "Born to Run" when I was finishing up my sophomore year," said Oneda, the daughter of Siniti and Victoria Oneda and younger sister of 2010 Winters Mill graduate Koya. "The book explored the theory that people were born to run, and that's why we became upright and have certain muscles, tendons and ligaments where they are in our bodies that turn us into natural distance runners.

"The book mentioned these crazy-looking shoes called Vibram Five Fingers. We bought them, and I totally walked right into them. From there, my feet adjusted and I haven't changed. I can barely wear tennis shoes any more."

Oneda was also unique in the classroom. A straight-A student, Oneda challenged herself with 17 Honors and seven Advanced Placement classes. Headed for Johns Hopkins, she finished high school with a 4.4091 weighted grade point average.

"I recognize her as the ultimate student-athlete," said Winters Mill athletic director Stephen Speck. "Not only is Hannah an exemplary athlete, but she is also a true scholar."

Oneda seems to be as competitive in the classroom as she is on the course.

"I'm a raging perfectionist, and I have to do everything right," she said, chuckling at her self-characterization. "I would have taken more AP classes in my senior year, but my dad wouldn't let me. He said I'd taken enough and he wanted me to back off, after considering that I'd come home from practice in my junior year and spend four hours every night and most of the weekends doing homework."

Oneda's running and academic schedules didn't keep her from taking a role in her school and community. She accumulated more than 120 community service hours. On many Thursday nights, Oneda could be found working in a Westminster-area soup kitchen. She also makes meals for the Glenelg-based Eagle Voice Center, which helps the homeless in Howard County.

A member of the National Honor Society, Oneda worked with senior citizens at Carroll Lutheran Village and helped with holiday parties for kids at Cranberry Station Elementary.

Oneda plans to continue her volunteer work when she heads to college this fall. After also considering Columbia University, Oneda decided on Johns Hopkins.

"When I visited Hopkins, I really got along with the coach and the girls on the team," Oneda said. "It was like I was already there, so I went with my gut."

Her major will be Global Environmental Change and Sustainability.

"My family has always been into organic gardening," Oneda explained. "We've always been environmentally conscious, and not just recycling. We really pay attention to what's going on, in terms of the waste and the consumerism and the way our society works. ... It's how I grew up, wanting to get involved in society in a different way."

Oneda's environmental awareness and advanced worldview led her to choose a major that can take her in several directions.

"When I discovered this major, it found that it was perfect for me," Oneda said. "I definitely knew that I wanted to be involved in something that was important. I can go into the environmental concentration, which is where the scientists work. The other side is the social concentration, which is where you deal with governmental policies. Each of these concentrations cannot live without the other."

She will continue her running with the Blue Jays, who belong to the Centennial Conference. While she led Winters Mill to a fourth-place finish at last fall's cross country championships, Oneda longs to be part of a team championship.

She will have that chance at Hopkins, where the Blue Jay women's cross country team finished 14th at last fall's NCAA Division III championship meet.

"(The girls' team) didn't win a team championship at Winters Mill," Oneda said. "I watched our guys win three state titles in a row. I want to win at nationals."

About this award

Since fall 2007, The Carroll Eagle has presented this award to a Carroll County student-athlete at the conclusion of the fall, winter, and spring sports seasons. The publication also presents an overall Student-Athlete of the Year award at the end of the school year. All student-athletes who compete at the varsity level for a Carroll County public school are eligible for the award, which is based on academic achievement, athletic achievement, and a record of service and good citizenship in the school and community.