Two years ago, the word 'tennis' wasn't very predominant in Madison Olexson's vocabulary.
Now, after having enjoyed some success in just her second season with the Pleasant Valley girls' team, 'tennis' will be used quite often in the foreseeable future.
Olexson, a sophomore in only her second year of playing the sport, made the incredible jump from a No. 3 doubles player to the Bears' No. 1 singles player this past season. She went on to finish with an 11-6 overall record, took home third-place honors in the Mountain Valley Conference's No. 1 singles tournament, and earned the area's only District 11 AAA berth.
Due to her solid season, and her uncanny ability to quickly adapt to such a competitive leap, Olexson has become the recipient of the TIMES NEWS Girls' Tennis Player of the Year award.
"Our athletic director called me down to the athletic office and told me that I had won this award," recalled Olexson. "That's basically how I found out.
"I was so excited. I had no clue I was even in the running for such an award. It was definitely unexpected and I think that's what makes it feel so great."
Last year as a freshman, Olexson was delegated to doubles play with teammate Kara Urland due to her youth and an abundance of seniors on the Pleasant Valley squad. After graduation left the Bears with just two returning letter-winners, head coach Mark Allison decided to hold a try out for the No. 1 singles position. As Allison expected, Olexson and Urland were the two players competing for the top spot.
"We had a round-robin tournament in the preseason to determine the spots," said Allison. "I kind of thought (Olexson and Urland) would be the last two standing. They won MVC gold as unseeded freshmen last year in the No. 3 doubles tournament, so I expected them to be toward the top of the list this year.
"Madison earned it. It was pretty close, but she had the most points at the end of the tournament."
While the transition from playing in one of the last matches of the day to being counted on as a point-winner for the team may seem like an extremely tough one, Olexson made the switch look almost seamless.
In her very first match of the year, taking on a senior in Liberty's Kaitlyn John, Olexson came storming out of the gates and took the first set 6-1. Things got tougher in the second set when it went to a tiebreak, but the youngster stayed strong and won 7-5 to take the match in straight sets. It turned out to be Pleasant Valley's only point of the day.
From there Olexson went on to post a winning record in the regular season. She capped it off by bringing home a third-place medal at the MVC championships.
"It was an easy switch for me, athletically speaking," said Olexson. "I've done taekwondo for 11 years and have pretty good footwork, so that part of the transition wasn't very difficult. Competition-wise was fine too. I've been competing in things since I was five-years old and I think I can preform fine under pressure.
"I just have to work on my strategy and some other things like serving and where to hit the ball. But I really love singles play. It's a completely different game."
Although Allison expected his young leader to preform well at her new position, he never thought she would take to the switch so quickly and easily.
"I can't believe how great she was," Allison said. "It was a big jump to a tough spot. You are playing all the best girls in the No. 1 singles match.
"I was pleasantly surprised with how well she did. It is a pressure position and I think she handled everything very well. She is a hard worker, a great kid and is extremely coachable. She is only going to get better as her career plays out."
Olexson will have a lot of experiences to draw upon next year. In her first season as the Bears' top player, she won more games than she lost, brought home a medal from the MVC tournament and qualified for District 11 play. Those achievements are all something that she hopes to build upon as she heads into her junior season.
"I felt very privileged to be a part of the district playoffs," said Olexson. "The nerves definitely kicked in when I got there, but it was such a great experience being around all those great players. The MVCs were the same way.
"I hope to get back to districts next year and move past the first round. I would also love to come out on top in the MVCs, but all I am looking for is improvements. I have to keep working with Coach Allison. I am very thankful for everything he has done for me and hopefully we can keep it going."