Going out in style
Sunset tennis star Laura Neal leaves nothing undone in her high school career
Laura Neal did it all during her Oregon high school tennis career.
During her storied career as leader of the Sunset High School girls tennis team, she won three Metro League titles and finished second once, and closed her career with back-to-back Class 4A state singles championships.
Now, however, Neal has one more item to add to her list of achievements - she is the 2005-06 Beaverton Valley Times Female Athlete of the Year. She shares the award with Southridge basketball star JJ Hones who is also profiled here.
With her spectacular senior season receding in the rearview mirror, you might expect Neal to be taking it easy and enjoying a few weeks of relaxation before beginning college at Colorado State, where she will study exercise science. But true to her competitive nature and commensurate with the greater challenges ahead in college tennis, Neal isn't slowing down a bit.
Instead, she's working her tail off, trying to get into the best shape of her life in preparation for the mile-high atmosphere at Fort Collins, Colo., and the difficulties of facing some of the best players in the nation.
'Mainly, I'm going to be getting in shape because the school is really high,' Neal said. 'But that's what will be so great about college is getting to play new people and learning a lot.'
By contrast, Neal, 18, played the part of teacher for most of her high school career, regularly schooling her opponents en route to becoming Oregon's first repeat singles champion at state in 10 years. And as great as winning her first Class 4A title was, that second title was something even more special.
'It's just that I came back to do it and all my friends were here (at Tualatin Hills Tennis Center) to watch,' Neal said. 'Everyone knew I had a good chance to do it … so it was really special to have them all here.'
Along the way, she more than earned the respect and admiration of Sunset coach Amit Kobrowski, who praised Neal for her efforts as a team leader as well as her consistent on-court contributions.
'Laura … is a great all around player,' Kobrowski said. 'Laura is very tough mentally and is fully committed to playing her best tennis' at all times.
As was the case with most of Neal's biggest wins over the past three years, the 2006 state championship victory was made special by the presence of Jesuit junior - and Neal nemesis - Rika Mehndiratta. Mehndiratta was one of the few Oregon high school players to have at least a measure of success against Neal, beating her during the 2005 regular season and later stopping Neal's streak of three straight Metro titles in the '06 district tournament.
But Neal wasn't about to let her senior season end on a down note. Despite battling her nerves and Mehndiratta in the state finale, Neal overcame both, posting a 6-4, 6-3 win to end her career a champion.
'It was tough coming back after winning the year before,' Neal said. 'Part of it was because it was Rika (and) part of it was tough because I knew she could beat me.'
Mehndiratta's ability often - if not always - brought out Neal's best tennis.
'I think I've seen her play some of her best tennis against me, and probably some of her worst, too,' Neal said. 'But it always made things interesting.'
Over the course of her high school career, Neal faced a ton of talented challengers and big tests, but none more than what she saw in her freshman season. That year, after playing No. 2 singles for the Apollos behind defending Metro champion Elise Montrose all season, Neal broke through to upset Montrose at district and win her first Metro crown.
'That match against Elise was big for me,' Neal said. 'To beat her on her own turf was a big deal. That was big for me.'
Neal cleared more hurdles her sophomore year, winning her second Metro League title and then rolling into the semifinals at the state tournament.
'I just kept getting wins and wins and that always helps your mental game, and I'd been working really hard too,' Neal said. 'Especially at the start of my high school career, I played as many matches and tournaments as I could.'
She won a bundle of those matches and tournaments, and plans to continue that trend at college, where she'll team with another former Oregon 4A champ, Reynolds High grad Emily Kirchem.
'I think (CSU) will be a better team next year,' Neal said. 'I already know Emily and I hope we'll have a chance to play some doubles together over the summer and see if we play well together.'
Until then, however, it's wind sprints and rally games, weight lifting and hitting - with a week off for a family trip to Hawaii - all in an effort to continue her climb toward greatness.
Don't bet against her.