As Abby Thornton goes, so does Marriotts Ridge's tennis team.
Thornton burst onto the scene two years ago and won county and regional titles in singles as a freshman, while the girls team captured the county championship.
Similar success followed her sophomore campaign, as she and her team again won county crowns.
This spring, though, was near perfection for Thornton. She won her third straight county tournament, but more importantly she was able to finally push the Mustangs over the top in the postseason for the first time by capturing the program's first-ever County Cup title.
Thornton, the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier Player of the Year for the second time in three years, wouldn't want it any other way.
"My team, we're all best friends. They mean everything to me. We're just one big family," said Thornton, who has helped the Marriotts Ridge girls team amass three county titles and a 46-2 record in the regular season over the last three years, including a perfect 16-0 record in 2016. "We all knew what we had to do, and everything we do, we do for each other. It definitely pushed us further to get that County Cup."
"She was voted on by her teammates to be the captain, so that says a lot about the qualities that she has as a person," said Mustangs coach Scott Dingman. "She knows how to push her teammates and lead them by example by how hard she works on and off the court."
"Yet at the same time, she has a very down to Earth, very funny, happy-go-lucky side to her that really lifts the spirits of everyone around her. I think team camaraderie is a big deal ... She really does a nice job trying to pull her teammates together."
Looking back to Thornton's freshman year, perhaps it's no surprise that success has followed her. She went undefeated that regular season and was the only county girl to advance to the semifinals of the state tournament en route to a fourth-place finish.
"I didn't know who I was going to be up against, especially at states. It was awesome to finish fourth," Thornton said. "It made me want to keep going that far and keep getting better every year. It gave me a real spark of motivation."
More than that, though, Thornton developed a love for high school tennis that some players don't have. She quickly learned during her first high school season that it meant more to her than just playing the game.
"After my freshman year, I loved it. I made so many friends; my coach is awesome. I just wanted to come back every year," she said. "The one thing I look forward to in high school is high school tennis."
She hit a few roadblocks her sophomore season. Atholton's Victoria Kogan returned from a year off playing United States Tennis Association tournaments, but Thornton held off Kogan in a close match to win the county tournament for a second straight year. However, Kogan won the rematch at the regional tournament, which hurt Thornton's seeding at the state tournament.
She would go 1-1, losing to Wootton's Miranda Deng — the eventual state champion — for the second year in a row in the quarterfinals.
After that defeat, Thornton knew she needed to continue to improve in order to accomplish her goals.
"I've been working really hard. I think overall I've become a better player," she said. "I am more consistent, I construct points better, and while there's still a lot of things I need to work on, I definitely think I'm starting to execute better. And the mental side of my game is better, too."
Dingman says that while her hard work has been evident since her freshman season, it's her personal drive to keep getting better that sets her apart from her peers.
"I think she was almost disappointed that Victoria was gone because she really wanted to avenge that loss that she had and be able to take her on again," Dingman said. "She is one who is quick to forget about the tough matches and the downfalls she's had. She really tough on herself; she's a perfectionist. She could be up 5-0 in a set and make a bad shot and you can just see she's disappointed in herself. She holds herself to a really high level. She uses those losses as motivation when she's out there every day."
Thornton was the driving force once again this season for the Mustangs. She did whatever Dingman asked of her — she played about half doubles- and half singles-matches during the regular season. Neither her nor Marriotts Ridge's girls team suffered a regular-season defeat.
Aside from a few matches against River Hill's Anna Artasova and Long Reach's Snigdha Puram, she cruised through the season with ease. She knocked off Puram, 6-0, 6-0, in the county and regional championship finals. In fact, she didn't lose a single game in either tournament and won each of her seven matches, 6-0, 6-0.
"When I'm out there, I'm just thinking about it point by point. Don't look ahead and don't look back — just stay in the moment and focus on what I need to do to win the point in front of me. I really just try to execute the game plan for that match," Thornton said. "I was working on really constructing points better and finishing. I definitely worked on my net game and worked on my serve a lot."
The state tournament brought a different challenge. Seeded second, Thornton cruised into the semifinals for the second time, but struggled to stay in her game against Sherwood's Lea Owens and lost, 2-6, 1-6, for the first time all season.
Unlike her freshman season, however, Thornton bounced back in style and played one of her best matches of the season against Brooke Santoriello of Patterson Mill in the consolation finals. Thornton won easily, 6-0, 6-1, to earn third place.
"It was really exciting because I got to the quarters last year and then I got to the semis my freshman year and got fourth, so it felt good to improve and get closer," she said.
Still, Thornton and Dingman both admit that anything short of a state title run next year will be disappointing.
"I definitely think this is motivation. I'm one step further and I know next year I'll be seeing some of the same people," she said. "I know how I played this year and I know what I need to work on. It's motivation and I definitely want to win first, not just for me but for my team as well. So I think that's an even greater drive to just grow my game."
Also named to the all-county first team:
Anna Artasova, River Hill. A freshman who came to River Hill from Russia in the summer, Artasova proved to be one of the top underclassmen in the county. She gave Player of the Year Abby Thornton one of her toughest matches during the regular season before joining forces with teammate Prateek Swamykumar in mixed doubles. The pair finished second at the county and regional tournaments, and then knocked off the top-seeded team at the state tournament before falling in three sets in the quarterfinals.
Sydney Balter, Howard. Balter helped lead Howard to a 14-win regular season. In the postseason, the senior teamed up with Natalie White to finish third at the county and regional tournaments in girls doubles.
Alyssa Boryachinskiy, Howard. An all-county selection for a second straight time, Boryachinskiy switched from singles this postseason to doubles, where she partnered with Kailey Caroland to win the county tournament and place second at the regional tournament. They dropped a close first-round match at the state tournament.
Kailey Caroland, Howard. Caroland was among a group of stellar Howard underclassmen who helped the squad win 14 matches in the regular season this spring. In the postseason, she and Alyssa Boryachinskiy knocked off Glenelg's top-seeded team of Anna Hall and Emma Sedlack to win the county doubles title, and then took second at the regional tournament. They went 0-1 at the state tournament.
Anna Hall, Glenelg. Hall, a junior, played a big part in Glenelg's 11-win regular season before partnering with Emma Sedlack in the postseason to finish second at the county tournament in doubles. The pair avenged that defeat to Howard's Alyssa Boryachinskiy and Kailey Caroland in the regional finals, which helped them earn a No. 4 seed at the state tournament, where they went 0-1.
Snigdha Puram, Long Reach. Puram broke through this spring to become one of the top singles players in the county. She finished runner-up to Player of the Year Abby Thornton in the county and regional finals, and then earned a tough draw at the state tournament. Still, she won two games against eventual champion Miranda Deng of Wootton in the first round. She also was voted as the Fan's Choice Player of the Year as just a sophomore.
Emma Sedlack, Glenelg. A junior, Sedlack teamed up with Anna Hall in the postseason, and the duo enjoyed plenty of success. They fell to Howard's top team in the county finals, but bounced back to avenge the defeat and win the regional doubles title. They went 0-1 at the state tournament.
Jessica Strongin, River Hill. Like teammate Anna Artasova, Strongin was one of the top freshmen in the county this fall. She helped River Hill win 12 matches in the regular season, and then finished third at the county tournament in singles. She fell to Player of the Year Abby Thornton in the semifinals of the regional tournament before placing third.
Tess Weber, Mt. Hebron. An all-county selection for the second straight year, Weber once again had a stellar season. She won county and regional titles in girls doubles last spring, and this spring she teamed up with Rohil Bahri in mixed doubles for the second time in three years. The pair won county and regional titles over River Hill's Anna Artasova and Prateek Swamykumar, and then made a semifinal run at the state tournament en route to a third-place finish.
Natalie White, Howard. Howard was strong in doubles this spring, and White was one of the Lions' top players. She partnered with fellow senior Sydney Balter to finish third at the county and regional tournaments.