Tennis was never so fun for Atholton freshman Irene Lu as when she got to put on the green and black school uniform and play as a part of a team.
Lu first picked up a racket four years ago, and has played in numerous high-level USTA tournaments over the past two years, but high school was an entirely new experience.
"I'm very happy that I was able to play for my school. It was a lot of fun," said Lu, the Columbia Flier/ Howard County Times girls tennis Player of the Year. "I never imagined that it would turn out this well. And my teammates, it was very fun playing with them and getting to know (coach Michael Ashmead). I was just glad I was able to help the team, and we did so well."
In fact, things couldn't have possibly gone better for Lu and the Atholton tennis team this spring.
Led by sophomore Victoria Kogan and Lu — both members of USTA's Team Maryland — in the singles spots, the Atholton girls rolled to a 17-0 regular season. Then, at the county tournament, Lu defeated Kogan — the reigning county champion and Player of the Year — in the girls singles final, helping Atholton win its second straight Howard County Cup.
Finally, at the state tournament, Lu defeated Kogan again in the state championship to become Howard County's first girls state champion in more than a decade.
That win also helped Howard County claim the team championship at the state tournament, ending a decade-long reign of dominance by Montgomery County.
"Midseason is when (Lu) finally figured out, 'Hey, I'm not just doing well for myself, I'm doing well for the team,'" Ashmead said. "Midseason is when she and Victoria really started having fun."
There were inherent difficulties in having two of the top players in Maryland on the same team. For example, who would play No. 1 singles and who would play No. 2? But that sorted itself out in time.
Kogan, who is known for her impeccable ball placement, played top singles for the most part, while Lu, who has a complete game plus uncanny power for a freshman, ran the table at the No. 2 spot.
"It was fun playing second because it's still tennis," said Lu, whose only loss this year came to Kogan in the regional finals. "But playing No. 1 singles (in the postseason) was definitely a step up because it was harder."
When Kogan and Lu started running into each other in May, though, Ashmead found himself in the uncomfortable position of watching two of his players pitted against each other.
His solution was usually to instruct them to play a good match and have fun, then find another match to watch.
"Other coaches were coming up to me at the state tournament saying, 'How did you deal with this all season?'" Ashmead said. "This was a learning experience for me as well."
Lu and Kogan are good friends and have played doubles together in USTA tournaments before, something that Ashmead wouldn't mind seeing again.
"I would not be opposed to having them play doubles, but we have a few years to figure that out," he said.
In the meantime, Lu — who has also competed in swimming and ice skating — is enjoying the spoils of her incredible high school debut. She plans to play in several Level 1 tournaments this summer, but also has plans to visit her older brother who is studying at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
"I'm still trying to decide (how many tournaments I want to play in this summer) because I also want to set aside some time to just have fun," she said.
Also named to the all-county tennis team:
Melissa Barall, Wilde Lake. Returning all-county selection led Wildecats to a winning record and placed third at the county tournament.