Leah Sharkey’s Monday evening practice at Carroll Tennis Center began with her and coach David Carroll going through a series of volleys on the indoor facility’s first court.
Carroll started the rallies, which took place in rapid succession, and Sharkey returned them in a variety of ways. She posted up along the baseline and aimed for the opposite baseline corners. She came to the net and worked on shot placement. She hammered in some overhead winners. She switched from forehand to backhand, and made sure she was in the right position for a quality hit every time.
“There are so fun,” she said to Carroll during a quick rest. “I love them fast.”
Sharkey said she practices with Carroll, her new coach, three to four times a week. And when she’s not on a court at the Finksburg venue, she’s hitting plenty of balls while teaching five days a week at some of the youth summer camps that take place there.
The incoming junior at Century High School won Times Girls Tennis Player of the Year in 2017, but passed on her sophomore season to focus more on playing at the United States Tennis Association level.
“I’ve been practicing a lot and entering a lot of tournaments,” Sharkey said, "because I feel like a big thing to get into a good college for tennis is a lot of tournaments for USTA. I actually have a big one [Tuesday]. ... I’m nervous, [but] I’m excited. It’s going to be fun."
Sharkey said she’s entered in the International Hard Court Wild Card Challenge tournament at the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park for the girls singles 18-and-under division at Level 5 — the USTA breaks down range of skill from 9 to 1, with 1 being the highest level of competition. The tourney will be Sharkey’s first girls 18s action, she said.
Sharkey said it was tough to give up high school tennis, where two years ago she won Carroll County and regional tournament championships and posted a 20-1 record. But with her current goal to play top-notch tennis at the college level, Sharkey said it became clear what she needed to do in order to see more improvement.
“I love making friends and hanging out with my friends, and I love the team feel," she said. “But I knew it would be better for me in the long run if I just focused on practicing, focused on the tournaments that I know are going to help me.”
The Tennis Recruiting Network’s website has Sharkey listed as the 11th best player in Maryland for the Class of 2021, and the site gives her a two-star rating (Nishitha Saravanan of Greenbelt is No. 1 with a four-star rating).
Sharkey is listed on the site as having played 12 tournaments, with a 16-8 record, and she’s ranked 92nd in the Mid-Atlantic region.
“I’ve been working hard to get that up," she said, “because that’s what the colleges look [at].”
As a freshman, Sharkey dominated the county’s tennis scene by overpowering many of her opponents. She dabbled in USTA events at a younger age, but soon discovered a strong serve alone wouldn’t be enough to stand out among a sea of players with similar talent.
“Because I love it so much, I get so excited in the point,” Sharkey said. "Recently I’ve learned a lot of patience, and rather than just slamming winners I’ve learned to craft my points, and hit corners, and carve out specific shots. I was more of a baseline player before, but now I like to finish at the net, which is the way to go.
Sharkey said her three USTA tournament wins this summer, all of which came in succession, were a welcome highlight. She bowed out at the next event in the Round of 16, but Sharkey said the loss motivated her to buckle down at practice.
Carroll wasn’t giving Sharkey much of a break between drills at the start of Monday’s session, but the 16-year-old didn’t seem to mind. After coming toward the net and reeling off several backhand, cross-court winners, Sharkey said to Carroll, “Those are my favorite.”
Her coach smiled and continued the friendly barrage.
Throwing out of the ceremonial first pitches before the Aug. 11, 2019 baseball game at Oriole Park had Taneytown resident Lisa Ramjit feeling a little nervous, she said. But she’s quite used to being in such a spotlight.
Sharkey is hoping her sacrifice pays off with a college commitment, but she’s not closing the door on returning to Century’s varsity team. Former Knights standout Paige Olson won Player of the Year honors as a freshman in 2009, skipped the next two varsity seasons, then returned in 2012 and won another POY award before going off to college.
Sharkey knows Olson’s path, and she has been thinking about doing the same because she’d hopefully have her college plans lined up by then. Enjoying a more relaxed senior year might be the way to go, she said.
But for now, Sharkey is determined to stay competitive and play as much high-level tennis as she can.