As an eighth grader with an impressive USTA track record, Abby Thornton watched last spring as Atholton freshman Irene Lu defeated sophomore teammate Victoria Kogan for the state championship, and knew that winning even a county title as a freshman at Marriotts Ridge this spring would be her most difficult challenge yet.
But, when she found out prior to this season that Lu and Kogan had both opted to sit out of high school competition this spring to focus on improving their tournament rankings, her chances of making a major impact immediately improved.
"I just wanted to do the best I could. It doesn't matter what grade you're in, what level you are. All you have to do is play your hardest and see what happens," Thornton said.
As it turned out, Thornton's efforts as a rookie were good enough for an undefeated regular season record, leading the Marriotts Ridge girls to the county title, followed by county and regional individual titles. While she was unable to duplicate the success of Lu or Kogan at the state tournament — she placed fourth as the only local girl to advance to the final round — her strong debut made her an obvious choice for the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier girls tennis Player of the Year.
"She really had an amazing year and has worked hard every day during the season. On the weekends when we don't have practice or a match, she's out on her own practicing and playing in tournaments just to try to improve herself as much as she can. She's remarkable," coach Scott Dingman said. "She was definitely one of the best freshman players that I've ever seen, and certainly the best freshman we've ever had. I'm excited to see how much better she can get."
Even without facing Lu and Kogan, Thornton had her share of challenging matches this year. Centennial freshman Jazmine Walle, also an experienced junior tennis player, pushed Thornton to captivating showdowns in both the county and regional finals, while River Hill's Caitlin Stewart-Moore and Wilde Lake's Melissa Barall also made her work for wins. Even in practice, teammate Alana Ravasio gave Thornton a comparable opponent to hit with.
"When she came to practice she worked hard. You could see it in her footwork. There was never a lazy day," said Dingman, who added that his star freshman also helped him coach once she had walked off the court after a victory. "She knows singles and doubles inside and out, she'd always be right on top of it."
Thornton finally met her match on the second day of the state tournament, losing to Wootton's eventual state champion Miranda Deng, and Randallstown's Asmara Rose, but Dingman sees Thornton only getting better as she grows.
"There are always things to work on no matter who you are, so we're going to continue to try to get better," he said. "She definitely has the consistency, and (a year of growth) should help her hit a little heavier ball and impose herself on her opponent a little more."
Thornton said that the losses at the University of Maryland in the state tournament tipped her off to some specific areas of her game to focus on over the summer.
"There are definitely some things I need to work on like my serve and stepping into the court more," she said. "These matches definitely opened my eyes and let me know what I have to work on."
Aside from the on-court success, Thornton thoroughly enjoyed the team experience that high school tennis offered. With Kogan and possibly Lu reportedly returning to the high school court next year, repeating as county champ will not be easy for Thornton, but she looks forward to the ride.
"I loved high school tennis. I love the environment. I'm definitely playing next year and over the summer. I'm just going to keep playing tournaments and training and getting better," she said.
Also named to the all-county team:
Lexi Hackerman, Centennial junior. Partnered with teammate Sarah Ho to place third at the county tournament before unseating Atholton's county champions in three sets in the regional semifinals to advance to the state tournament for the first time. Helped the Eagles win 12 matches during the regular season.
Sarah Ho, Centennial sophomore. Second-year player helped Eagles to a successful regular season, then teamed up with Lexi Hackerman to advance all the way to the state tournament at College Park. Ho and Hackerman battled to a third-place finish at the county tournament before upsetting Atholton's county champions in three sets in the regional semifinals.
Emma Hoesman, Howard senior. Ended impressive career with the Lions by partnering with fellow senior Max Balter to win county and regional mixed doubles titles, defeating River Hill siblings Rita and Byron Hung in three heated sets each time. Went on to win a match at the state tournament. Hoesman, who starred for the Lady Lions basketball team, also won county and regional titles as a sophomore, and was a finalist at both tournaments last year.
Rita Hung, River Hill junior. Helped lead the Hawks to a 13-3 regular season, then went on a memorable postseason run with brother Byron at mixed doubles. The sibling duo lost tight three-set matches to Howard in both the county and regional finals, and went on to win a match at the state tournament before falling to the eventual state champions from Churchill.
Erica Lee, Atholton junior. Helped Raiders claim the Howard County Cup by winning a girls doubles county championship alongside senior Margaret Tatum. Finished season with a third-place finish at the regional tournament.
Serene Mathew, Mt. Hebron junior. Led Vikings to a second-place regular season finish, then won a regional girls doubles title alongside senior Kiran Pant, their second after also winning in 2012. The pair also advanced to the county finals and won a match at the state tournament.
Kiran Pant, Mt. Hebron senior. Finished up an excellent career for the Vikings by winning her second regional girls doubles title with partner Serene Mathew, and winning a match against Linganore at the state tournament. Also helped Vikings to a second place regular season finish.
Alana Ravasio, Marriotts Ridge junior. In tandem with Thornton, gave Mustangs the top pair of girls singles players in the region. Led team to a regular season championship, then placed fourth at the county tournament and third at the regional tournament.
Caitlin Stewart-Moore, River Hill senior. Ended strong career, leading the Hawks to a 13-win regular season before placing third at the county tournament and fourth at the regional tournament. Also placed at both tournaments last year.
Margaret Tatum, Atholton senior. Won her second girls doubles county championship, after also winning as a sophomore, to lead the Raiders to the Howard County Cup. The senior, who also played for the Atholton girls basketball team, finished third at the regional tournament alongside partner Erica Lee. Tatum also placed third at the county and regional tournaments as a junior.
Jazmin Walle, Centennial freshman. Walle's outstanding rookie campaign was overshadowed only by Thornton, who won competitive matches in both the county and regional finals. Walle lost an opening round match at the state tournament to the eventual finalist from Whitman, and led the Eagles to a 12-win regular season campaign.