Winchester Star Girls' Tennis Player of the Year

Wilson's love for the game stands out on the court

June 23, 2011
By Robert Niedzwiecki
The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER- As a member of a model rocket team, James Wood senior Headley Wilson is used to watching some of her designs blow up after launching them into the air.

Whenever that happens, she doesn't let it faze her, which shouldn't come as a surprise to her tennis opponents. After all, she's never been one to let mistakes and errant shots blow up her resolve on the court.

Wilson is The Winchester Star Girls' Tennis Player of the Year after a season in which her grit stood out just as much as her talent.

Wilson won the Northwestern District and Region II singles titles - saving two match points in the Region II final - and became the first girl in school history to advance to the state singles final, where she suffered her only loss of the year.

Hidden Valley senior Kristin Harter, the 2009 Group AA singles champion, beat Wilson (23-1 singles record) 6-3, 6-4, though she only did so after Wilson won four straight games to knot the second set 4-4 at Radford University.

"The thing that impressed me the most this year about Headley was her determination," James Wood coach Sharon Sweet said. "She never gave up."

When you love the game and have as much fun with it as Wilson, surrender is impossible. Wilson doesn't plan on ever letting the sport go. Wilson began playing at the age of 8, and she was quickly hooked. With two parents and three brothers who play tennis, she's loved the fact that there's always been someone around to hit the ball with, and she can't say enough about how much their support has meant to her career.

But the biggest reason why she took to tennis so quickly is because of how much personal responsibility is involved.

"Just the fact that I could do it on my own, and I didn't have to depend on someone else to play," said Wilson, the first Colonel girl to win tennis player of the year honors since 1994. "I was pretty much in control of my own destiny, how hard I wanted to work, and how much time I put in."  And there's no question that Wilson enjoys spending most of her time at the net.

Wilson is capable of hitting more volley and drop-shot winners in one match than some players will hit in 10, and if an opponent pops up a short ball, look out. During the Group AA singles tournament, one observer who wasn't affiliated with Wilson or either of her opponents loudly remarked, "She could give a clinic on overheads."

Wilson credits the teaching of area coach Mike Johnson for emphasizing just how important it could be for Wilson to develop that aspect of her game.

"He's always preached being at the net and having a good volley and net base," said Wilson, who will attend the University of Virginia next year and study engineering. "I just love being at the net. In doubles, it's a faster-paced game, because there's more people hitting at each other. Just being able to feel the ball more instead of just banging from the baseline is something I've always enjoyed."

That passion helped her win consecutive Group AA state doubles titles with Kari Pope in 2008 and 2009.

Pope's graduation in 2009 meant Wilson would ascend to the No. 1 singles spot at James Wood. Wilson's doubles success gave her a lot of confidence for that transition, but she also knew that success wouldn't necessarily carry over to singles.

"Singles and doubles are two totally separate games," Wilson said. "It was definitely intimidating."

Not that anyone could tell.

In 2010, Wilson was the only player to beat Handley's Sarah Moomau, who went on to win the Group AA singles title. Wilson was also a game away from beating Moomau in the Region II final, which would have sent her and not Moomau to the state tournament.

Moomau's title made Wilson believe she could take the next step and advance to Radford for the first time in singles. But one of the keys to her success this year was that she never assumed she would make that leap.

"Some of my friends would always joke to me, 'Oh, you're going to states this year?' And I'm like, 'Not yet,'" said Wilson, dragging out the start of "not" for emphasis. "I didn't take any players in districts for granted, because obviously [Handley's] Jessie [Nolan] and [Sherando's] Sarah Wolfe are really good players, and they can beat you any day of the week.

"I could have been beaten by any of the girls in region too, but I came out successful because I was extremely focused."

Anything less than her best mental game, and Wilson might not have advanced to the Group AA tournament.

Down 6-5 in the third set, Wilson's will helped her survive two match points - she came back to win the game and won the match in a tiebreak.

And it was her intelligence that gave her will a chance to shine. Wilson said decision-making was the aspect of her game that improved the most this year.

"I don't have the best groundstrokes, and I don't have the best shots that anyone's ever seen," Wilson said. "But I definitely play a smart game, and I think that got me a long way.

"In regionals, I knew there were better players than me, but I knew that I could play smarter than them. I could pinpoint little things - maybe their backhand was a little shaky or something like that - and that made me very successful. I always go in with a game plan."

After a convincing 6-1, 6-2 semifinal win over York's Wiktoria Plawska, Wilson finally ran into an opponent that had an answer for her plans in the state final against Harter.

There's a lot of things about that match she'll always remember.

She won't forget the support of Sweet, and the sight of the numerous family members, friends and teammates who came to see her play her final high school match. Wilson can't think of a single match in her life where at least one family member wasn't present.

She'll remember Harter's father coming up to her to tell her how good of a player she was and how much sportsmanship she possessed. For Wilson, having a reputation for playing class means more than any victory on the court.

And of course, she'll remember staring down a 4-0 deficit in the second set and battling back, just like she always has.

"I'll always continue to fight," Wilson said. "I've definitely fought in my schoolwork, and I'm going to continue to fight throughout the rest of my life. You can never count me out."

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