Bernstein is rookie Coach of Year Booker, Knouse honored All-Howard County tennis

June 07, 1993|By Michael Richman | Michael Richman,Contributing Writer

Mount Hebron's tennis program enjoyed a fresh personality this spring.

Improvements in on-court skills, team attitude and work ethic led to a 10-4 record -- up from last year's 6-8 mark -- and a second-place finish in the Howard County tournament.

First-year coach Cliff Bernstein created the Vikings' new look. He instituted a no-cut policy, instilled a more aggressive serve-and-volley style, got the parents involved and motivated players work for a common goal.

The highlight of his season was on May 6, when his Vikings upset mighty Centennial, 5-4, after he guaranteed the win despite Centennial's string of 36 straight county match victories.

For his quick, successful impact, Bernstein is The Baltimore Sun's Howard County Tennis Coach of the Year.

Howard's Sam Booker and Centennial's Becky Knouse are the Baltimore Sun's Tennis Players of the Year.

Booker, a sophomore, went 12-2 in the regular season before topping Mount Hebron's David Mitchel for the county singles title.

Knouse, a junior, had a 14-0 record and routed Wilde Lake's Tracy Stephan in the county championship. She also won a District V singles crown and reached the state semifinals.

Bernstein was hired in February to replace Barbara Rees, who set the stage with good recruiting. He wanted to restore a winning flavor in Mount Hebron, which hadn't won a county title since 1977.

"I was very pleased with achieving the goals I set forth for the team and myself," said Bernstein, the No. 10 player (age 40-plus) in the Mid-Atlantic Tennis Association in 1992. "It's been a rewarding professional experience for me."

With 46 players in the no-cut system, the Vikings started slowly with a 2-4 record. Things came together and they won the next eight matches.

It took the first six matches, Bernstein said, before his message of team unity sank in.

"The experience for the kids had to be fun and we had to work together as a team," he said. "I said, 'It doesn't matter being seeded first or fifth, the important issue is playing a role on the team.' Once the togetherness of the team and players' attitude was in the right place, it affected our winning percentage."

Centennial coach Bill Shook said, "In talking with the Mount Hebron kids, they seemed more energized this year. They seemed to really have fun. That's the first thing for a coach, gaining respect from his players."

The Vikings' home win over 11-0 Centennial was a turning point in their 8-0 run. The Eagles won, 6-3, in the first outing. However, with the opportunity to pick the matchups as the home coach and needing only two more wins than the previous match, Bernstein predicted victory.

"The best thing he did was pick out a lineup that beat us," Shook said. "In his first year, he learned very quickly how to set up a format to beat us."

Booker claimed the county singles title by winning every set in four matches against Glenelg's Jerry Pollack, Centennial's Kahn Pathan, Hammond's Martin Sjeeborg and Mitchel, 7-5, 6-0.

Despite placing some perfect passing shots, No. 3 Booker trailed No. 1 Mitchel, 5-4, in the first set. After tying the set, he broke serve and took the final game in love. Throughout the match, Booker used a strategy of keeping Mitchel, a solid net player, on the baseline.

"I tried to keep people at the baseline and I would come to the net," Booker said of his tourney play. "I'd try to volley the ball into the corner or hit a volley drop shot."

Booker played the season's first half at fifth seed before winning four inner-team challenge matches to ascend to No. 1. He finished 12-2, losing to Mitchel and Centennial's Brian Ruppert in the regular season.

Known as an aggressive, hard hitter, Booker has one of the county's most powerful forehands, Wilde Lake coach Rick Wilson said.

"He can put it away from anywhere. It's a long time since I've seen a player like that," Wilson said. "He can put it away from three feet behind the baseline, forehand or backhand."

In District IV play, Booker won two matches before losing to Severna Park's Ben Rawitt, 7-5, 6-4, in the semifinals.

Over the past three years, Knouse has been the county's most phenomenal female player. After back-to-back 13-0 seasons, she finished 14-0 in 1993, losing only a handful of games.

Knouse's stamp on the county title, a 6-1, 6-1 win over Stephan, was indicative of her regular-season performance. Stephan broke serve in each set's first game. But Knouse, with effective placements on ground strokes and little net play, won the remaining games to earn her first singles championship.

"I'm really happy with how my season went," said Knouse, who credited her club coach, Adolph Smith, with positive tutoring. "Last year, I was in a slump, questioning my tennis. This year, I played a lot and worked hard on my tennis, which feels really good after all the work I put in."

In the districts, Knouse won the title over Annapolis' Meghan Cornwall, 6-1, 7-6 (8-6). She then reached the state semifinals, but lost to Pikesville's Kelly Margolis, 6-4, 7-5, for fourth.

Knouse's appearance in the states was her third in as many seasons. Playing doubles, she placed third in consecutive years with Melissa Esposito.

"Whenever you have a kid who's a junior and who's been to the state tournament three times, what more can you say about her?" Shook asked.

"She's on a plateau looking to jump to the next level [state champion], and her determination has her headed in the right direction."

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