Falcons' Johnson knows all eyes now focused on her

Severna Park sophomore won't catch any opponent by surprise this season

March 20, 2000|By Andrea Leand | Andrea Leand,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A year ago, Susan Johnson worked her way up the league ladder as an unsuspecting freshman, but this season, the 16-year-old is the overwhelming favorite to dominate girls tennis in Anne Arundel County.

The Severna Park sophomore, with the blistering ground strokes and serve, charged to No. 2 in 1999 behind perennial champion Jennifer Hellier. But Hellier's graduation from Broadneck leaves Johnson the one to beat.

"It feels good to be the favorite this year," Johnson said. "I expect everyone to try and beat me like I tried to beat Jennifer last year. I'm fine with that because it's different this year.

"Last year, I kept wondering what my initiation test would be as the freshman on the team, but this year, I'm much smarter with more experience and just thinking about my goal to get to the state championships."

With a No. 2 ranking in Maryland this year, Johnson seems well on her way to achieving her objective. Her year-around training and improved versatility and shot selection gives her a better chance this year not only to reach the state championships, but also to excel there.

"Susan is a very strong player," Severna Park's first-year coach April Quigley said. "She is a really good competitor who never gives up. And she hits the ball very hard. That's why she likes practicing with the boys, because she can blast the ball as fast as they do."

In fact, Johnson knows the division's top boys better than her own competition this year because she practices with many of them year-round.

Otherwise, Johnson, captain of her team, remains one of the few veterans among a field depleted by last year's graduation and crowded with undefined freshmen.

Graduation had nothing to do with Severna Park's Andrew Porter's decision to skip the season. The 1999 Boys Player of the Year created the biggest stir by choosing to skip his senior year of high school tennis after dominating his division last year.

His understudy, Evan Schwartz, who played in last year's mixed doubles, will try to fill his shoes in what is a changing of the guard this year.

Expect Annapolis' Troy Demers, the sole victor over Porter last year in county tennis and ranked No. 2 in 1999, to spark his all-around game and crackling serve and volley to take firm hold of No 1. Demers must watch out for Glen Burnie's Scott Nguyen's big hitting game.

"When Scott is on, he can be spectacular and certainly push Troy," said Arundel coach Bud Rorison. "A lot of us lost our top players and are rebuilding this year. Susan and Troy still are clearly a level above the rest, but there are a lot of talented players below them who have improved and will fight for No. 2."

Rorison's most promising player, Bonny Busch, possesses a tenacity and consistency to test the best. But Broadneck's Kristen Kibler may have the best shot at knocking off Johnson with her improved serve. Her fierce two-handed backhand and all-court game make her a potent force.

Kibler competed in mixed doubles last year but most likely will fill the No. 1 singles slot this season. Her past doubles experience sharpened her net game and serve-and-volley, while her participation on the school's soccer team left her in prime condition.

Two Broadneck sophomores may also serve notice this year. Holly Schafer and Erin Farabaugh honed strong ground strokes and serves as well to pose threats.

"And I certainly may give them the chance to play some singles to get experience and give us depth," said Broadneck coach Phoebe Kelly.

Annapolis, with 1999 Coach of the Year Richard King at the helm, has depth. King will look to veteran seniors Sarah Martin and Megan Fisher and junior Mary Kate Bukowski as well as Demers to fill the void left by the graduation of five top boys.

"We lost a lot of players like many schools did, and may run middle of the pack," King said. "It's all cyclical. But I'm optimistic about our prospects and promising players coming up. Johnson and Troy are clearly favored to win all their matches in county, but the team [results] will be interesting."

Arundel boasted last year's top boys and mixed doubles teams but must construct new pairs after three of its four players graduated.

Chris Beegle, who partnered with Anna Buschman to comprise last year's No. 1 mixed doubles pair, will showcase his scrappy, baseline savvy at No. 1 singles this year. And Brad Hurst, part of the county's No. 1 boys' doubles duo, may pick up where he left off by possibly partnering with junior classmate (and Busch's brother) John.

In girls doubles, Severna Park's Jamie DeGraffenreid may follow in the footsteps of her sister, Jessica, who dominated last year's girls' doubles with partner Lauren Boyd ( both graduated) by teaming with classmate Lindsay Suller.

"It's all about the team, not one person's results," Johnson said. "We work together and support each other which is what really makes playing on the team fun. And I'm not going into the season blind this year.

"I know how the system works and hopefully will be able to help our freshman win."

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