When Lauren Heckelman first picked up a tennis racquet three years ago, Pleasant Valley head coach Mark Allison wasn't quite sure how her career was going to turn out.
"As a freshman, I didn't know if we could make a tennis player out of her," admitted Allison. "She would either hit the ball into the net or into the fence surrounding the court. She needed a lot of work."
Heckelman isn't afraid to admit it either.
"I had been playing sports all my life and I figured tennis would come easy," recalled the Bears' No. 1 singles player. "It was so frustrating at first. Coach Allison likes to talk about the times I would hit the ball into the fence, but it's true.
"It seemed so easy when the coaches showed the swings, but I couldn't do it. It took a lot of hard work from the both of us."
Now, three years later, all of Heckelman and Allison's hard work has finally paid off. Thanks to her 8-7 record and third-place finish in the Mountain Valley Conference tournament, Heckelman has been named the 2011 TIMES NEWS Tennis Player of the Year. She is the first Pleasant Valley tennis player to win the award since Lauren Blakeslee did so in 2002 and 2003.
Heckelman entered the MVC's No. 1 singles tournament unseeded. She defeated Pocono Mountain West's Lauren Morales 8-0 before losing a heartbreaker to Pocono Mountain East's Tirsa Delante in the semifinals, 8-7 (9-7).
Still, Pleasant Valley's captain rebounded quickly. For the first time in her career, Heckelman defeated Stroudsburg's Katie Catina 8-7 (7-3) to win the third-place match.
"I finished second as a junior in No. 3 singles after receiving a bye," said Heckelman. "It was much harder as a senior. I went into the semifinals very confident. I just lost in a good, tight match.
"The consolation match was the first time I had ever beaten Katie. That meant a lot to me. Obviously I wanted to win the whole thing, but to place third after being unseeded felt pretty great."
As gratifying as the tournament victory was, it was another match with Catina that stuck out the most in Heckelman's mind. A week after knocking off Catina in the MVCs, the two met again at Stroudsburg. Heckelman ended up winning the match 1-6, 6-3, 6-1. But the victory didn't matter to her. She was proud of something else.
"It was a tough, back-and-forth match and I edged her out in three sets," Heckelman said. "I wasn't as happy with the result as I was about our friendship still being intact. I was glad that we were going to be friends no matter what."
Heckelman also progressed into the team's leader. Whereas she was a lonely freshman playing the sport for the first time just three seasons ago, the senior became Pleasant Valley's backbone. However, she didn't lead with her words. She led with her play.
"She was a leader by example," Allison said. "She is a very hardworking player and set a great example for our younger girls. She is one of the nicest athletes that I have had the pleasure to work with.
"The girls' team has improved so much over the last two years. It's no coincidence that Lauren has been an important part of our team over that time."
Heckelman also took part in both the District 11 singles and doubles tournaments. Unfortunately, after a blind draw she was paired with Freedom's Marielle McIntyre in the opening round. McIntyre was the No. 1 overall seed and went on to win the entire tournament. She and teammate Sarah Elmontacir fell in the first round of the doubles bracket as well.
As for her future, Heckelman is waiting to hear from Duke University. Other colleges she has been in contact with include Lehigh University and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass.
While she admitted that she probably won't play on either tennis team, Heckelman did say that she will continue to play the sport that she has come to love in such a short period of time.
"I have no immediate plans with tennis," Heckelman said. "Where ever I go I want to focus on my education. I think sometimes that gets lost when you play a sport at the college level.
"I will still play tennis though, whether it is for fun or in an intramural league. Tennis has become such a big part of my life that I couldn't imagine giving the game up now."