On courts at Meade, freshman stands firm

On High Schools

May 02, 2006|By MILTON KENT

Upon watching Meade freshman Valerie Collins for the first time, you could make the quick and facile assessment that what makes her special is her ability to play tennis on a prosthetic leg.

And while that makes her interesting, it by no means makes her special, at least not in the view of her coach, Clint Rogers, who sees her persevering every day and has concluded that her willingness to try and to keep trying is what distinguishes her from the rest.

"I'm super-pleased with her, and I admire her so much," Rogers said. "Some people would find a reason to be down in the dumps. She just gets out here and has a blast every day. She tries, and it just doesn't get any better [than that]."

Collins, a doubles player, has had a remarkable spring with a 2-4 record heading into today's match with South River, considering that she is playing competitively for the first time and she has a pronounced limp.

But, in Collins' mind, her limited playing inexperience is a far bigger challenge than the fact that she was born without a tibia, or shin bone, in her right leg. Getting around with a prosthesis is just something that she has always done, since the first surgery when she was nine months old.

It's no big deal, as the kids say, and Collins said she doesn't believe her teammates or opponents treat her any differently because of her leg.

"When [opponents] first get out there, [they say], `OK, that's different. I wonder what she can't do,' " Collins said. "So, they test me a little bit. Then, during the game, they see a little bit of my weaknesses, like I can't run very good across court. But I have a doubles partner so it's not that hard. And once things get started out there on the court, maybe they just forget about it. They don't stare, they don't ask questions or anything. It's all cool."

Rogers knows Collins is different, though he didn't know initially just how different she was when she showed up for practice that first day in March.

"I sent her out for a run and she was coming back in," Rogers said. "I saw it all wrapped and I thought she had a sprain or something. I said, `You should have told me about that.' She said, `What? I'm fine.' And that's when I found out she had the prosthetic leg."

Rogers said he took it easy on Collins at first, not letting her extend herself. That is, until she assured him that she was OK. There are days, to be sure, when Collins has to have a breather, but there aren't many of those days.

"She's good, and if anything, I wish she would hold back a little bit, because when she's playing around with [her teammates], she's going for out balls and she's out there running to chase them down. I'm like, `Save yourself. Don't do that,' " Rogers said.

Instead, Collins and her partner, Monica Ramirez, have been all over the court, and may move up to Meade's No. 1 girls doubles pair next year, Rogers said.

The coach said he thinks Collins could be better if she developed a two-handed forehand but understands that may not be possible because of her leg.

"She's developing a pretty good game. She's come a long way this season, and I see her being better next year and better the year after," he said. "I don't know whether she could ever play singles because of the leg, but she's going to be a heck of a doubles player."

Collins, who played volleyball and basketball at Meade this school year, said tennis will be her sport because it is so "laid-back," which fits in with her personality. In fact, one of the reasons Rogers is so fond of Collins and Ramirez is that they don't take everything seriously.

Toward that end, Collins said she doesn't mind when her schoolmates ask about how she came to have a prosthetic, and she's not above making up a story to entertain them, and herself.

"When people ask, I am nice and I answer them," Collins said. "Sometimes, I play around and play tricks on people. I make up some stories about how it happened, and I use some creativity. Later, I'll go back and tell them the real thing."

Once, Collins said, she told a story about her leg that involved her fraternal twin sister, Tiffany, who runs track at Meade.

"I said that when I was little, me and my sister were playing in the garage with a chain saw and an accident happened," said Collins, laughing. "That's the best story. And lots of people believed it. I guess a rumor started to spread around, because two years later, people asked me if it was really true."

Rogers said he doesn't believe that people think of Collins as a novelty or feel sorry for her. And while some kids in a similar situation might stray from being portrayed as a role model, Collins said she is comfortable with that label.

"Some of the girls and maybe even some of the guys out here ask me for advice sometimes on the court," Collins said. "They're like, `That's a really nice shot. You're a beast,' and they're giving me all these compliments and stuff. They think I'm a really cool player.

"I guess I feel that anybody can do anything if they put their minds and hearts into it. If they try really hard and believe they can do it, they should go for it."

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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