Avery Leonard and Gemma Hill have Aspen High girls tennis back at state
Play starts Thursday in Colorado Springs
The intensity of the Class 3A state tournament might hit harder when the players finally step on the court, but heading into Thursday’s opening round it seems the most pressure-packed matches of the season are already behind both Avery Leonard and Gemma Hill.
The duo will represent the Aspen High School girls tennis team in the spring finale in Colorado Springs, with results there having little impact on the overall success of the season for the AHS players.
“I’m really excited. I feel like when you go to regionals there is a lot more pressure, because if you do bad you don’t qualify for states and you are done,” Leonard said during Tuesday’s practice session at Aspen Meadows Resort. “Then at states, there is nothing else to qualify for, so I don’t really feel any pressure toward it. I’m just going to go and have fun and obviously try my hardest to do well, but if I don’t it’ll be OK, too.”
Leonard, a junior, is the team’s No. 1 singles player, while Hill, a senior, plays at No. 2 singles. Both finished second in the regional tournament held last week in Grand Junction to qualify for the state tournament, which is being played at Memorial Park in Colorado Springs beginning Thursday and running through Saturday.
“I’m feeling good about it,” Hill said. “I love all the girls that play tennis, and I have a lot of friends on different teams that will be there, which will be super fun to see them and support them as well. I think the whole thing is exciting.”
Leonard, the daughter of noted professional golfer Justin Leonard, took over as the team’s top player after moving up from No. 3 singles as a sophomore. Last spring was her first year playing competitive tennis — keep in mind the 2020 season was canceled because of the pandemic — and Leonard made the state tournament, winning her first match before bowing out in the quarterfinals.
She admits the move up to No. 1 singles has been difficult, but her own skills with a racket have made a similar jump forward.
“It’s definitely been more challenging. But I’ve also grown in my game significantly since last year. I played all winter. So it’s been a lot of fun,” Leonard said. “Just going into this season knowing what was coming, having already played singles and knowing how match play works and stuff like that, that’s been another aspect that has helped me.”
Leonard will play St. Mary’s senior Ellie Hartman in the first round on Thursday. Hartman was a state semifinalist at No. 1 singles last spring.
“I don’t know what to expect. Especially at states, the No. 1 singles players are a lot more advanced than I am. But I am hoping I can make it past the first round. I think I can,” Leonard said. “I just don’t want to leave with any regrets, being like, ‘Oh, I could have played harder, I could have moved my feet faster,’ so I’m just going to try and put everything out there and see how it goes.”
The preseason battle for the No. 1 spot between Leonard and Hill came down to only a few swings of the racket, meaning the two aren’t far apart in skill level. And something that has aided the team as a whole this spring is the overall camaraderie among the players, a positive trait that had most of the players who did not qualify for state still practicing Tuesday despite their seasons being over.
Aspen’s only league loss this spring was to Vail Mountain School — VMS also won the regional tournament over AHS — and a couple more losses to a tough Fruita-Monument team, but otherwise it was an impressive showing for the Skiers. All four of Aspen’s doubles teams finished third in the regional tournament and were officially listed as alternates for state.
Leonard and Hill, however, still have some work to do.
“They put 100% effort into every practice and every match. So their journey is definitely honorable,” said Ksenija Ilic, who coached the team this spring alongside Bryan Mehall. “They have two different kinds of playing styles, where Gemma is more of a counter puncher, and Avery has more of an attacking style. So it would be complimenting each other, especially in practice. It’s interesting to practice with somebody who has contrasting style.”
Hill also joined the AHS tennis program last spring — she would have played as a sophomore had the season not been canceled — and made the state tournament at No. 2 doubles alongside teammate Emma Bern. The pair lost in the first round, a fact that doesn’t seem to bother Hill, who has embraced singles play this season.
Hill will play Holy Family sophomore Laura Baker in the first round on Thursday. Baker went 1-1 as a freshman last spring at No. 3 singles, losing to the flight’s eventual runner-up.
“It’s more of a chess game. You learn more about your opponent and about the game and match play, I would say,” Hill said of playing singles. “Especially at this level, it’s much more of a mental game than it is with doubles. It’s a lot about how you perform under pressure, which I kind of enjoy. Because that’s kind of fun.”
Ilic said the team will likely see a lot of turnover ahead of next spring, with a few seniors set to move on — Hill plans to attend UCLA in sunny California to study neuroscience — and a few others will be moving out of state. This includes Leonard, whose family is likely headed to Florida. Justin Leonard becomes eligible to play on the PGA Tour Champions — otherwise known as the senior tour — later this summer.
That said, the AHS coaches praised their junior varsity team and is excited to see them step forward. The coaches limited the team’s roster this spring, as opposed to letting everyone who tried out play, in order to give the players more time with the coaches, which will hopefully lead to more development in terms of skills.
“It was amazing this year. They put in a ton of effort during practice,” Mehall said. “There was a huge improvement from the beginning of the season. Across the entire lineup, everyone was playing a lot better.”
The long drives to Denver to play competitive club softball and fine-tune her skills during the offseason are paying off for Glenwood Springs High School senior Kiera Larson.