Oak Harbor sophomore Ashley LaFountain is ready for a second run to the state tournament, but the path is not clear or easy.
In 2009, LaFountain earned a berth to the tournament as the third qualifier from the Northwest district.
In Columbus, Ashley drew an opponent from the relatively weak southeast district in her first round of the state tournament. She won in two sets, 6-3 and 6-1. Her second match versus a girl from the southwest district, however, exposed some of Ashley's weaknesses.
"It didn't look that close on paper, but it was in the first set," her father and Oak Harbor coach Rick LaFountain said. Ashley led at times in six of the seven games in the first set, but fell in two, 6-1, 6-1.
"I still remember, it was the first time she ever told me, 'Dad, I'm tired,'" Rick said. "'What you you mean you're tired?' She's like, 'I'm mentally tired. I can't do this anymore.' After that first set, she just ran out of steam. She had a pretty tough run there."
He said her mental fatigue was just not knowing what to expect in the state tournament. She had been there to watch the competition, but it's a different feeling altogether on the court.
Ashley said she was just worn down from playing so much tennis working toward the state tournament, with none of the usual breaks. But with her offseason experience and preparation, she's ready for another try.
"This year, with my mental game (improving), I think I'd be able to handle that situation better," she said. "I've (gained) maturity in my game over the past year, so I think I'd handle it differently this year."
Getting out of districts, however, is not a guarantee: She'll have to navigate around Lexington's Courtney Earnest, the 2009 state runner-up, as well two-time state qualifier Drew Fillis of Ottawa Hills. Fillis defeated Ashley 6-4, 6-4 in her second match of the season.
"I've just got to mainly keep my head in the game," Ashley said. "I should make it, because I've beaten many of the other girls in the district that I know about. Drew's beaten me, but I've beaten her before, too, so I'm not counting myself out of that one. I've just got to take every match seriously and not get overconfident."
And sectionals are in a familiar location: The Thron-Hablitzel Tennis Center in Port Clinton.
"I've played a lot of matches this year at Port Clinton," she said. "I think I've played more matches this year at Port Clinton than at Oak Harbor because of all the tournaments and big events held there this year. It definitely helps a lot because I'm comfortable playing on those courts."
The Oak Harbor sophomore is phyisically stronger this year, Rick said, and has better contingency plans. Her experience playing at state should help, too.
"It was more of a confidence and mental gain," Ashley said. "This year my physical game is about the same, maybe a little better. But it's mainly a mental thing."
She's looking at this three-step run as just another tournament on her 25-event-per-year schedule, including events in Illinois and Michigan.
"When you get down there, you don't have very many bad players," Rick said. "Everybody down there is pretty strong, so you're going to have to be playing your very best tennis if you're going to win down there."
And the expectations are higher, which adds to the pressure, Ashley said. She was just happy to be there and didn't really expect to win a match in Columbus.
"Last year, people didn't really expect that much because I was a freshman. I tried to set the pace for myself. This year, people are expecting me to go, so it's a little bit stressful."
Occasionally the higher finishers choose to forgo a prep schedule for national play (such as 2008 Division-II champ Lauren Davis, still a junior at Gates Mills Academy near Cleveland). This year, they're all returning.
And none of the Division II state quarterfinalists were seniors last year. That includes the 2009 champ, Alyssa Ritchie of Waynedale.
The Port Clinton sectional features most the area teams -- The seven teams from the Sandusky Bay Conference, as well as Bellevue, Norwalk, Fremont St. Joe, Toledo Scott and Toledo Rogers. Qualifiers return to the same location for district play.
St. Mary Central Catholic junior Armelle DeRiso is the second seed in the sectionals, while Bellevue's Ophelia Whitmore is third and Oak Harbor's Julia Konieczny is fourth.
The Redskins' senior tandem of Chelsea Beck and Aubrey Gillman, three-time state qualifiers, are the first seed in the Port Clinton district bracket. Their teammates, Samantha Griffin and Rachael Szabo, are the second seeds, while Norwalk's Jaclynn Hipp and Olivia Kasten are third and Shelbe Gibson and Mariah Bloom are fourth.
In Division I, Sandusky will host and play in their own sectional tournament (Fremont Ross, Oregon Clay, Mansfield and Ashland). They will host the first day of the district tournament, as well, with the second day in Port Clinton.
The Willard girls will play in the Division II sectional at Shelby High School, part of the Port Clinton district. Vermilion is at Tri-City Park in Rocky River for their sectionals with districts at Weis Park in Canton.