Jane Hollinger knew Nisha Patel was destined to be a Blue Streak.
From the time the Sebring girls tennis coach first saw Patel, when she was just a youngster trying to learn the fundamentals of tennis from her father, Hollinger knew there was potential for greatness.
“My dad and I started playing when I was in the first grade,” Patel said. “Coach Hollinger came out and saw me playing, and she said, ‘you better continue to play tennis and get better. When you get to high school, I want to recruit you to my team.’ It was really inspiring.”
Now, with Patel less than a month away from graduation, Hollinger’s foresight has been validated.
The senior sensation anchored a Blue Streaks squad that reached the semifinals of the Class 2A regional tournament. The No. 1 singles and doubles player for Sebring, Patel consistently toppled some of the state’s best talent.
While finishing as a runner-up in both the district and regional tournaments, she amassed a singles record of 13-4. Her high school record is now an impressive 57-6. For her accomplishments, Patel has been selected as the Highlands Today 2014 All-Highlands Girls Tennis Player of the Year.
“It’s really an honor [to win it],” Patel said. “To have it my freshman and senior year has just had such a huge impact on me. I know how hard it is to get it and what it takes. It really means a lot.”
Despite the numerous awards racked up in her four years on the varsity team, Patel added that the most interesting aspect about playing tennis for the Blue Streaks has been watching teammates and opponents grow alongside her.
“It’s been pretty cool to see everyone improve,” she said. “The competition got a lot harder as I got older. Playing people I grew up with three or four times a year was always tough.”
Patel will attend the University of Florida this fall and plans to play tennis for the Gators’ intramural teams.
“My doubles partner will be going up there, too,” Patel said. “I’m really looking forward to the chance to compete against other teams.”
Hollinger thinks Patel will have little trouble in college, either in the classroom or on the tennis court.
“Nisha is an outstanding player,” Hollinger said. “She’s focused, determined and smart. She has great ground strokes, volleys and overheads. She’s a well-rounded player.
Micaela DeVane, senior, Sebring: A four-year starter for Hollinger, DeVane was the No. 2 singles player for the Blue Streaks this season. She finished with a 13-3 record, which puts her at 27-5 for her high school career. DeVane and Patel made a formidable tandem in doubles play, and the duo capped their farewell season as regional runner-ups.
“Micaela is a well-rounded, aggressive player with solid strokes” Hollinger said.
Jocelyn Jackson, sophomore, Avon Park: One of only two returning players Avon Park had this season, Jackson made significant improvements in her game.
“She served as a great example of what a team player should look like,” Red Devils coach Ashley Falis said. “Jocelyn is always encouraging her teammates and putting forth her best effort in practice and matches.”
Hannah Waller, senior, Lake Placid: The Green Dragon’s No. 1 singles and doubles player, Waller put together another impressive season to make the first team for the second consecutive year.
Alaina Keith, freshman, Sebring: The lone freshman to make this year’s first team, Keith excelled in her inaugural high school season. She compiled an impressive 16-2 record as the No. 3 singles player, and finished second in both the district and regional tournaments. Hollinger has high hopes for Keith next season.
“Alaina is eager to learn and ready to step up next year,” Hollinger said.
Stephanie Rodriguez, senior, Lake Placid: A dominant force in doubles play when teamed with Waller, Rodriguez capped another stellar season on the tennis court.
Sarah Beth Rogers, senior, Sebring: Rogers didn’t skip a beat when she moved up several spots in the lineup this season. She went from the No. 11 singles player to No. 4 in the offseason. Her record reflected a lot of growth and she finished the season at 14-3 at No. 4 singles and was a district and regional runner-up.
“Sarah Beth played her best tennis this year,” Hollinger said. “She had great ground strokes and was aggressive at the net. She’s a determined player who never gives up — she won a three-hour quarterfinals match at districts.”
Claire LeBlanc, senior, Lake Placid: A multi-sport athlete for the Dragons, LeBlanc excelled whether she was on the court or in the pool. She set a sterling example of how student-athletes can manage their time to be successful both in the classroom and in athletics.
Ashley Castelli, junior, Sebring: Castelli won the No. 5 singles match up at the Heartland Conference Invitational, wrapping up the season as a district and regional runner-up in singles and doubles. She compiled an impressive 15-3 record.
”Ashley played multiple sports at the high school and is an all around athlete,” Hollinger said. “She places the ball well and will run down any shot.”
Jenna Blount, senior, Lake Placid: It didn’t matter whether Blount was scoring a goal on the pitch, squaring up a drive, or swatting a tennis ball, she found success in all of her athletic endeavours for the Dragons. With her selection to the tennis squad, Blount made three All-Highlands teams. She was also selected for soccer and golf.
Heather Reschke, freshman, Avon Park: One of the Devils many new faces this season, the inexperienced Reschke has drawn high praise from her coach.
“Heather entered the season as a brand new tennis player,” Falis said. “And with her hard work and motivated attitude, she has made a lot of improvement.”
Amanda Rios, senior, Sebring: Wherever Hollinger wanted to put her, Rios was ready to play. The senior finished with a 5-1 record and helped Castelli finish second in the regional doubles match.
”Amanda has great top-spin ground strokes as well as solid overheads,” Hollinger said.
Coach of the Year
For guiding her team to a runner-up finish in the Class 2A-District 11 tournament and a berth in the regional semifinals, Sebring’s Jane Hollinger has been selected as the Highlands Today 2014 All-Highlands Girls Tennis Coach of the Year.