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.
Emma Hoesman, Howard. Won county and regional titles at mixed doubles last year, then teamed with Max Balter this year to advance to the county and regional finals.
Simone Jensen, Centennial. Helped the Eagles to a 12-4 regular season, then teamed with Megan Mishra for an impressive postseason run. The two won county and regional girls doubles titles and placed third at the state tournament, with their only loss coming to the state champion.
Rachel Knobel, Atholton. The defending county champion at girls doubles was a veteran presence for the undefeated county-champion Raiders and teamed with Margaret Tatum to place third at the county and region tournaments.
Victoria Kogan, Atholton. Defending county and regional champ led Raiders to a 17-0 season, defeated teammate Irene Lu for the regional title, and advanced all the way to the state finals.
Serene Mathew, Mt. Hebron. A defending girls doubles regional champ, Mathew led the Vikings to 12 wins and then teamed with Kiran Pant for a solid postseason run, placing second at the county and region tournaments and placing fourth at the state tournament.
Megan Mishra, Centennial. After leading her team to a 12-win season, partnered with Simone Jensen to win county and regional girls doubles titles and placed third at the state tournament, only losing to the state champion.
Kiran Pant, Mt. Hebron. Helped the Vikings win 12 matches, then joined Serene Mathew to go on a girls doubles postseason run that included county and regional finals appearances and a fourth-place state finish.
Alana Ravasio, Marriotts Ridge. Only a sophomore, Ravasio lost just three regular-season matches, helping the Mustangs win 12 matches.
Caitlin Stewart-Moore, River Hill. In a crowded singles field, Stewart-Moore made a mark, helping the Hawks to a 14-3 regular season, then placing at both the county and regional tournament, where she took third.
Jenna Sweet, Atholton senior. One of few seniors on a young team, Sweet served a leadership role for the undefeated Raiders, then joined fellow senior Scott Lee to win county and regional titles at mixed doubles. Also placed fourth at state tournament.
Margaret Tatum, Atholton. After winning a girls doubles county title with Rachel Knobel last year, helped Raiders go undefeated this season, then joined Knobel again to place third at county and regional tournaments.