Shi quietly led Hawks to era of success

Somehow the term quiet just doesn't seem appropriate when describing a career which included two individual county championships, four regular season and Howard County Cup team titles and a trip to the state championship match this year in girls doubles.

But when interacting with River Hill's Rena Shi, the Columbia Flier/Howard County Times girls tennis Player of the Year, the word quiet seems just right.

Ever since her freshman year, when she ascended to the No. 1 singles spot to lead her team to a 3-2 win over Marriotts Ridge to win the regular season county title match, Shi has paced the Hawks down a road of brilliant success.

Over the past four years, a span in which the Hawks have had four different coaches, the River Hill girls tennis team has won 60 of 68 matches. Each year they have won the regular season girls team title and the Howard County Cup, the trophy that goes to the school that accumulates the most points between its boys and girls teams at the county tournament.

And all the while, Shi has been the team's constant leader.

"She's so cool on the court, she handles herself so well," coach Jennifer Stoker said. "Everyone respects her."

While the coaches came and went, Shi returned each year and took on more of a leadership role as a result.

"I like giving people advice here and there," Shi said.

Stoker, who was an accomplished player at Centennial High and Brigham Young University, was more than happy to let Shi chime in with strategic advice.

"Rena's very quiet, but she knows what she's talking about, so when she does talk, it's worth listening to," Stoker said.

After playing mixed doubles during the postseason of her freshman year, Shi won county and regional titles and was named Player of the Year as a sophomore.

"Her strength is that she can hit the heck out of the ball. She hits very solid and very flat, and it's almost always a winner," Stoker said.

But then last year, Glenelg's Jordan Maisel — who returned to Australia before this season — took the county by storm. While Shi was very good, Maisel was simply better. But instead of acting frustrated, Shi took the demotion to second best player in the county with great grace and dignity.

"I kind of wish (Maisel) had stayed," Shi said. "I respected her as an opponent and it was fun to be challenged."

This year, Shi returned to her role as the county's undisputed champion and won every singles match she played with relative ease. By the end of the season, Shi and fellow senior Audrey Cheng decided to play girls doubles together. Cheng has been widely regarded as one of the top singles players in the county the past several seasons, even though she played No. 2 singles behind Shi.

Shi and Cheng were an unstoppable force through the county and regional tournaments and dropped a total of only three games en route to the state championship match. There, they finally met their match, losing to Bethesda-Chevy Chase's Anna Rozenberg and Emma Baker.

"It was fun even though it didn't work out as well as we had hoped," Shi said. "We had the potential to win, but it was a fair game. They were a good team."

Shi is attending the University of Maryland next year on a music scholarship — she is a talented violinist and even gives lessons — and is planning to pursue a double major in music and business.

While she has no aspirations to continue playing tennis competitively, Shi will always have fond memories of her time as a Hawk.

"It was an honor to play on the team and be one of the top players. It's been really fun bonding with my teammates and I've really enjoyed meeting different players from all around the county," Shi said. "It's been kind of quick. Each year, the season seemed to go by so fast."

All-county first team

Mafalda Torres, Marriotts Ridge.

Highlights: The Peruvian exchange student had to adjust to playing on hardcourts from clay, but once she did, she was one of the best players in the state. Torres won the regional championship in straight sets, avenging a pair of losses to Corinne Zahlis, then cruised to an opening round victory in the state tournament before falling to the top-seed and eventual champion in a competitive match. Torres' addition helped the Mustangs win 14 matches.

Corinne Zahlis, Hammond.

Highlights: After finding postseason success with J. Guzzone, who now plays collegiately at St. Mary's University, each of the past two seasons, Zahlis made her own mark this year by winning the individual county crown. The senior went on to place second at regions and won nine games in a two-set loss in the opening round of the state tournament.

Audrey Cheng, River Hill.

Highlights: Arguably the second-best singles player in the county this season, Cheng went undefeated at No. 2 singles and gave the Hawks an unstoppable 1-2 punch at singles with Rena Shi. A mixed doubles state champion in 2010, Cheng led River Hill to a 16-1 record and its fourth straight regular season team title. When she paired with Shi for the postseason, the teammates formed one of the county's strongest doubles teams ever.

Brianne Leaf and Nicole Leaf, Marriotts Ridge.

Highlights: This sister act went undefeated at No. 1 doubles until a loss to Shi and Cheng with two matches left in the regular season. They went on to finish second at the county and regional tournaments and won a set in the opening round of the state tournament before being eliminated. The Leaf sisters were a key to the Mustangs' 14-2 regular season record.

Kanami Mori, Centennial.

Highlights: Paired with teammate Michael Baruch to win mixed doubles county championship as the No. 3 seed, helping the Eagles to a second-place finish, two points behind County Cup winner River Hill.

Melissa Barrall, Wilde Lake.

Highlights: Joined forces with senior Daniel Evans to place third at the county tournament and second at regionals before going on an impressive run at the state tournament. There, the Wildecats' mixed doubles team upset the No. 3 seed in the opening round, then won a second match to become one of only three state placewinners from Howard County by taking fourth place.

Anastasia English, Wilde Lake.

Highlights: Teamed up with Andrew Baxley to win a regional title in mixed doubles, defeating the county champions and avenging a loss to their own teammates along the way. Won a match in straight sets at the state tournament before being swept out by the eventual champions.

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