Without much hesitation, Liberty’s Grace Johnson pinpoints the 2019 spring season as the period of time her tennis abilities improved the most.
That year as a sophomore, she went undefeated while playing No. 2 singles for the Lions and made it the finals of the county championship tournament. Yet, for as much as she learned during matches, Johnson says it was actually practice where she saw the greatest growth.
Regular sessions hitting with and competing against teammate Jane Aldakkour — the eventual county singles champion — brought out the best in her.
“I was challenged so much that year at practice that I felt like I was constantly getting better. And that’s actually what I love most about Liberty tennis, it’s always a competitive environment but it’s never toxic,” Johnson said. “We are all there to push one another to be the best player that we can be and that was especially true with Jane and I. We were so evenly matched, and we looked forward to playing one another.”
Those long hours of friendly competition, along with a little extra motivation from falling just short of a title two seasons ago, certainly went a long way for Johnson this spring as a senior.
She rolled her way through to another undefeated regular season, this time competing at No. 1 singles, and then delivered in the postseason as well on the way to a county singles championship. She won the title in convincing fashion courtesy of a 6-2, 6-1 victory over South Carroll’s Casey Reno.
While the season fell one win short of a region championship, Johnson’s dominance throughout the spring on the way to a 14-1 record has earned her the distinction of being the Times’ 2021 girls tennis Player of the Year.
“Grace was improved in so many areas this year, from her serve to her forehand, to just in general being able to get a lot more pace on her shots. But I was most proud of the way that she grew into being a leader,” said coach Tim Brecker, who has been working with Johnson in some capacity since she was in the fourth grade. “She is one of the most unselfish people that you will run into and was an incredible role model for the other players on the team. She set the example both as a player and as a person, really putting the team in front of a lot of personal things.”
Johnson’s earliest tennis memories are going up to hit against the wall at Liberty High School around first or second grade. It wasn’t long after that she began taking lessons with Brecker.
In the years since, she says the one constant is that tennis has never felt like a job.
“I’ve taken it seriously, for sure. But it’s always been something fun to me and something I’ve looked forward to,” she said.
She started out as a freshman playing doubles, but transitioned to singles as a sophomore because of a team need and thrived almost immediately.
“Grace has a good all-around skill set, with a great net game, so we felt like she could excel in either singles or doubles,” Brecker said. “The big thing I remember is that she was ready and willing to do whatever we thought was best for the team.”
In the county championship match that year against the familiar face of Aldakkour, Johnson rallied to win the first set before falling just short in a third-set tiebreaker. It’s a match that Brecker remembers well.
“It’s probably one of the best battles I’ve seen in a county final and the fact that it was between two teammates just made it even more incredible,” Brecker said. “And I think that even though Grace ended up losing, that was the match that gave her the confidence to know that she belonged.”
Johnson echoed that sentiment regarding gaining confidence despite defeat, heading into tryouts as a junior with a different mindset than a year earlier. The 2020 season ended up being canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Johnson still carried a strong belief in herself onto the court when things finally resumed this spring.
After posting an 11-0 record during the regular season, she got her chance at redemption at the county tournament. She said winning that match was validation in a lot of ways.
“It’s not all about winning all the time, but I think in that particular case it was,” she said. “I have been playing tennis for so long and it’s been such an important part of my life that being able to win that tournament and earn that accomplishment gave me something to show for all the hard work.”
In the 2A West Region championship match against Poolesville’s Angelina Zhao, Johnson’s undefeated season came to an end. But again, even in defeat, she was quickly able to put things in perspective.
“I lost to a better player than me, and I have no problem admitting that. I think my overall feeling afterward was that I was just so grateful to have had the opportunity to compete this year,” Johnson said. “Losing last year was pretty rough because I have made some of my best friends through Liberty tennis, and I look forward to every season because of the camaraderie that there is on the team. I loved going to practices, going on bus rides and playing music after wins as a team. Getting to have a chance to experience all that one more time before high school was over meant so much.”
Johnson is now headed to the University of Maryland, where she will be a part of the honors college and begin pursuing a major in aerospace engineering. While she won’t be playing tennis for the Terps, Johnson will be staying close to her athletic roots with a job lined up to be a tennis instructor at the school facility.
“I may not be on the team, but it should be a fun way to stay involved with the sport,” she said.
FIRST TEAM ALL-COUNTY
Grace Johnson, Liberty, senior
Casey Reno, South Carroll, junior
Kara Bartolowits, Liberty, junior
Paige Coulson, Liberty, sophomore
Madison Haggerty, Liberty, junior
Alyssa Vandenberge, Liberty, senior
Danielle DeLawter, Century, junior
Amber Manspeaker, Westminster, senior
SECOND TEAM ALL-COUNTY
Century: Anan Gaur, Maddie Keffer. Francis Scott Key: Paige Bussells. Liberty: Lauren Benz, Grace Maerten. Man Valley: Carly Jarkiewicz. South Carroll: Marissa Lauffer, Grace Nieman, Madalynn McQuarrie. Westminster: Jen Sorkin, Daphne Whitmore. Winters Mill: Jess Ludwig.