Forest Grove's athletic but inexperienced girls tennis team is improving by leaps and bounds

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: AMANDA MILES - Forest Grove junior Karimi Nyamu hits a backhand during a home tennis match last Thursday.The Forest Grove girls tennis team is starting to make this a habit.

A year ago, Vikings junior Karimi Nyamu turned out for the team with little experience and turned into a varsity mainstay, holding down the third singles spot.

This year, an even better Nyamu is playing No. 1 singles, and several freshmen are following in her footsteps. Though they are practically tennis neophytes, they already are starting to make a dent in the varsity ranks.

“I think that the group that we have that’s coming up is just really athletic and so they’ve picked up on the game really fast, I think,” Forest Grove coach Kelli Tusow said. “Even if they haven’t had that much experience, they use their athleticism to improve quickly.

“They’re pretty dedicated, and all that makes for becoming more solid players that can play varsity.”

One of the newbies, Claire Buehler, is so dedicated that she has been practicing with her dad, T.J. Buehler, a former college player, on weekends this spring. Though she had hit the ball around a bit with her dad growing up, she had not played competitively before this spring.

“This year when I finally wanted to play tennis, he was so excited to help me out and make me a better player,” Buehler noted.

The extra practice seems to be paying off for Buehler, who made her varsity doubles debut a couple weeks ago against Tualatin.

She and her doubles partner in that match, Stevie Walker, could make up the Vikings’ top doubles team of the future.

“We kicked some butt,” Walker said about that match, which the girls forced all the way to a tiebreak. “That was probably one of the best matches I’ve played so far. I definitely hope that we can keep playing together.”

Walker has a similar tennis background to Buehler — or lack thereof, more accurately. She used to hit tennis balls against the garage with her dad, but that was about it.

But Walker said she wanted to get involved in school activities, so she turned out this season, expecting to play junior varsity. Instead, she made the varsity from the get-go, and Buehler eventually joined her.

The Tualatin match was the first the girls played together, but already Tusow envisions that the “Team Lefty” pairing — both players are southpaws — might stay together for the duration of their high school careers, a rarity.

“That could be a huge advantage for us,” Tusow said. “They would know so much about each other. They already work really, really well together. It’s obvious. They complement each other really well.”

In Forest Grove’s dual against Pacific Conference leader McMinnville on Monday, Buehler and Walker pushed their Grizzlies opponents in the exhibition match — the top junior varsity match — before falling 6-8.

“They were just volleying like crazy, so I think that doubles is definitely their thing,” said Tusow, who expects the girls to play at the lower varsity and upper JV levels for the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, another freshman without much seasoning, Esther Vega, has used her athleticism and footwork to nab the team’s No. 3 singles spot.

For inspiration, the girls need look no further than Nyamu, who ran track as a freshman. Not content to rest on her laurels, she spent a lot of time last summer working on her tennis game. Tusow said she could contend for a state berth in singles or doubles.

“Last year, I used to be so shy of serving, but now I’m actually confident,” Nyamu noted. “I knew that I improved dramatically over the summer, and so now I’m a lot more confident.”

She’s also setting a great example for the youngsters following the same path.

Said Tusow: “I think that those freshman can see from people like Karimi that putting in that dedication, even over just like a year’s time, how big of a difference that that can make.”

The Lady Vikings traveled to Glencoe for a Pacific Conference match on Tuesday (results were not available at press time) and they will visit Newberg on Thursday.

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