For Kamiak senior Sally Park, the past three 4A girls tennis state championships must have seemed like deja vu.
Each year of her high school career, Park has placed fourth and has lost to the player that went on to take third. It’s been a goal of Park’s to improve on those fourth-place finishes and crack the top three, but she has never once been disappointed in her performance.
“I think it’s an accomplishment for me because I feel like, since my freshman year, each year at state the competition is becoming harder,” Park said. “To be able to play under that pressure and keep placing fourth, I view it as a positive thing. Hopefully this year I can move up.”
Park will get her opportunity on Friday when the 4A state tennis championships begin in Richland.
At 14-1, Park hasn’t lost a match this season that she was able to finish. Her only loss came to Snohomish’s Caroline Dreher in a match she started and led before it was eventually suspended due to rain. When the match resumed at a later date, Park had pulled a muscle between her pointer and middle fingers on her left hand and was unable to continue.
Losing isn’t something Park is used to, having experienced it less than 10 times in her four years at Kamiak. Though the losses are uncommon, they have proven to be an opportunity for Park to examine her game.
“I feel like (losing is) one of those moments that takes me back and I can look at what I need to work on and made mistakes on,” Park said. “When you’re always winning matches you don’t always have that recognition of what you need to work on.”
With each loss, Bloemker has seen Park put those lessons into practice. The improvements, though subtle, have helped Park stay among the state’s elite players all four years.
“I think over the last four years she’s really fine-tuned her game,” Bloemker said. “She has many facets to her game and she has many tools that she can use on different opponents.
“She’s a very well-rounded player.”
Two of the three players who finished above Park at last year’s state tournament are back this season, including defending state champion Sammi Hampton, a junior from Skyview. Also returning is Inglemoor senior Sabrina Demerath, who has placed third and ended Park’s state-championship ambitions in the quarterfinals in consecutive seasons.
With Hampton and Demerath returning, it will be a challenge for Park to break into the top-three, but Bloemker remains confident in her star senior.
“She’s playing very well right now and she should have a strong performance at state,” Bloemker said.
“I feel that she does have the ability to do better than what she’s done in the past. We just hope that she can come and put it all together — and I have confidence that she can.”
The hand-injury that plagued Park earlier in the season hasn’t been an issue so far this postseason. She won the district championship last week with a 6-3, 6-1 victory over Dreher.
It isn’t just Park’s on-court game that has improved over the past four years, just as important has been the improvement of her mental game. Bloemker said Park tends to be relaxed on the court and doesn’t let adversity get to her during a match.
She has exhibited that mental toughness each year at state by rebounding from defeat to win consecutive matches and place fourth.
Park said the first match after losing is the most difficult to come back from because she has to play a third match on the same day.
“I don’t get that time to recover — physically or mentally,” Park said. “I think that’s one of the hardest ones. But after that, I think the fourth match becomes easier for me because I get overnight to rest and prepare mentally.”
Despite being the final opportunity for Park to improve on her three fourth-place finishes, she said she feels relaxed going into the tournament.
“I think I’m actually more comfortable and more relaxed going into the state tournament this year,” Park said. “I don’t feel as strong of pressure as I have in past years. This year, because it’s my last year, I’m hoping to do better, but just even going to state was an accomplishment for me.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronlommers and contact him at email@example.com.