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Van Essendelft pulls off huge turnaround

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Published December 24. 2018 01:53AM


Leanne Van Essendelft knew she was better than her record indicated.

But she was also aware that it didn’t matter what she knew. It was about what she showed on the court.

So the Jim Thorpe tennis player dedicated herself to showing she was better.

Her senior season proved she was.

As a junior, Van Essendelft’s record playing No. 1 singles for the Olympians was 3-11.

This past season, playing a lot of the same players she lost to a year earlier, Van Essendelft’s record improved dramatically.

She finished the season with an 11-4 mark. She then capped off her outstanding campaign with a strong postseason that included appearances in the District 11 Doubles Tournament and Team Tournament, as well as a school-record tying run in the District 11 Singles Tournament.

It was all part of a magical senior season that earned Van Essendelft the Times News/Lehigh Valley Health Network Girls Tennis Player of the Year Award.

Van Essendelft’s individual success played a key role in Jim Thorpe’s team success as the Olympians finished with a 13-2 record, setting a school record for wins in the process.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Van Essendelft. “If you would have told me during my freshman year that I would be playing No. 1 singles and have the record I did, and that our team would have all the success we did this season, I don’t think I would have believed it.”

It’s easy to see why Van Essendelft’s tennis expectations might have been slightly muted following her freshman season.

“We only had seven players on the team and I was the last person on the ladder,” recalled Van Essendelft. “Our team had a losing record and I was the worst player on the team. But I loved the sport and I was determined to improve.”

Fast forward three years and the improvement Van Essendelft and the Olympian team has shown has been astronomical.

This year, Jim Thorpe had 17 girls on the roster and no one was better than Van Essendelft.

“I’m really proud of Leanne,” said Jim Thorpe coach Norb Lienhard. “She is very deserving of this award.

“Not only for all her individual accomplishments on the court, but also for her hard work, her dedication to the game, and the leadership she has displayed.”

Leinhard said that he had high hopes for Van Essendelft entering this season. But even he was surprised by just how successful she was.

“I never expected it,” said Leinhard. “I knew Leanne had the potential to be a lot better than 3-11. But I was really surprised by how much better she turned out to be.”

Both Leinhard and Van Essendelft credited the same thing with playing the biggest role in her massive turnaround.

“Leanne played a lot of tennis this past offseason, and her game definitely improved,” said Leinhard. “But there is no question in my mind that the most significant change was with Leanne’s attitude.

“She was way too hard on herself. If she made a mistake, she couldn’t let it go. She would be thinking about what she just did wrong instead of focusing on the next point. It would end up impacting points and games the rest of the match.”

Van Essendelft agreed.

“I was so much stronger mentally this season,” she said. “I would really get down on myself last year and I know it hurt me during matches. This year, I really focused on looking ahead and not dwelling on missed shots or mistakes. I tried to focus on the next point and not the previous point.”

That attitude paid huge dividends.

“I spent a lot of time this summer playing tennis. I worked with coach Leinhard and I also took some private lessons,” said Van Essendelft. “I think all my strokes were better this year, and I definitely improved my consistency.

“But even with those improvements, if I hadn’t changed my mental approach, I wouldn’t have had nearly as much success as I did.”

After a junior year that left her frustrated, the two-time Olympian captain had a senior season that she won’t soon forget.

“I walked off the court after a lot of losses my junior year thinking I wasn’t playing up to my potential and I was better than the girl I had just lost to,” said Van Essendelft. “I think that humbled me as a player and made me more determined.

“I’m so insanely proud of this past season. From both an individual standpoint and a team standpoint, it far exceeded even my wildest dreams.”


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