Free State’s Wang all but invincible on tennis court

The last two weeks tell it all when she’s on, Emily Wang is unbeatable.

The Free State High senior didn’t lose a game in four matches at the Sunflower League tennis tournament Oct. 8, then nearly did the same at the Class 6A regionals in Topeka on Monday. She gave up two games in trouncing Overland Park Aquinas’ Shannon Brown, a fifth-place finisher at state last year.

“She does have a higher gear,” FSHS coach Jon Renberger said. “She respects everybody she plays, but when she wants to be, she can just be dominating.”

Wang, 28-2 this season, has been all business the last two weeks, and expect nothing different at the state tournament Friday and Saturday in Emporia. The defending state singles champ will try to become the first Class 6A player to win back-to-back titles since Shawnee Mission South’s Cassie Drake in 1997-98.

Is Wang pumped? Well, yeah, and that spells trouble for her opponents.

“I think I’m going to go into this pretty focused,” she said. “No matter if it’s my second time or what. It’s always hard to do something like that twice. You just have to make sure you go in with the right mind-set.”

Odds-on favorite

It helps that her two losses this year came to non-6A opponents, making her the odds-on favorite this weekend. Still, Renberger maintains those losses to Salina Central’s Stephanie Smith and Kansas City, Mo., Teresa Academy’s Colleen Rielley wouldn’t happen again. Both of those came in tournament-style pro-sets: one set, first to 10 games, win by two.

Free State's Emily Wang has been on fire lately, dropping just two games in rolling to league and regional titles.

In a best-of-three style, Wang’s strength of a superior ground game usually prevails. To watch her trade groundstrokes with an opponent is like watching a fire hose douse someone with a water pistol. There’s just too much strength behind her shots.

That’s not all she does, either. It’s just the most impressive. Listening to Renberger rave about her skills, it’s evident why Wang is so good.

“She’s by far the best player I’ve ever had, in terms of a complete player,” said Renberger, who has coached at Free State since it opened in 1997 and coached in college before that. “She tips the ball, she’ll hit it with a slice. She’s the best all-around, gifted high school tennis player I’ve ever seen.”

‘This is kinda my down time’

Wang went 32-1 last year, beating Blue Valley North’s Carlie Rodney for the state championship.

It wasn’t enough.

Emily Wang, Free State SeniorThe scoop on the city’s hottest prep tennis player2001 record: 32-1 (State champion.)2002 record (through Thursday): 28-2.College commitment: Illinois.Coach’s quote: “She’s the best all-around, gifted high school tennis player I’ve ever seen.” Firebird coach Jon RenbergerNext chance at state title: Saturday in Emporia.

Like most high school tennis players, Wang plays year-round, taking lessons and playing in countless tournaments. For example, last summer she played in tournaments every week. Most weren’t local.

She played so much, the high school season almost is like a break for her.

“During the summer, I think I was home about a week and a half, I was playing so much,” she said. “This is kind of my down time.”

It’s that year-round commitment, plus a good deal of natural ability, that intrigued colleges. Wang dabbled in other sports in her high school career, throwing the javelin in track her sophomore year.

FSHS girls’ basketball coach Brian Duncan occasionally prods her to play this winter.

She’s an athlete playing tennis, not an everyday student who’s good at tennis.

“It does take a gifted athlete to excel in tennis,” Renberger said. “If they run around the court, if they can’t anticipate a shot, or if they don’t have quickness of feet or upper-body strength, then chances are it’s not all going to come together. Fact is, she’s got all that.”

Those skills, coupled with an almost-as-impressive academic record, led four universities Illinois, Maryland, Wisconsin and Indiana to schedule official visits for Wang last summer as part of her recruitment.

Yet Wang found herself liking everything about Illinois. She wanted to stay in the Midwest, and she liked the coaches. So she orally committed even before she visited the Champaign, Ill., campus. A follow-up visit two weeks later confirmed the decision.

She was Illinois-bound.

‘She’s just Emily’

Sydney Lartigue, a Lawrence High junior, spends her Sundays driving into Kansas City for tennis lessons with Wang. The two have become good friends through the years, playing in many of the same tournaments and taking lessons at what used to be the Alvamar Racquet Club on Clinton Parkway. When it was sold last year, they switched to Indian Creek Racquet Club in Overland Park, where Wang now takes lessons with Phil Baillos.

Lartigue and Wang can kid each other, cracking jokes about boyfriends or each other’s game. For her part, Lartigue says Wang can be “kind of ditzy,” but says that applies to everybody.

“She’s just Emily,” Lartigue said. “She gets along with everybody.”

If Wang wins on Saturday, she’d be the first Lawrence athlete to win two titles since Lawrence High’s Kara Brady won singles titles in 1987 and 1989.

LHS coach Dick Wedel, who’s seen his fair share of good players through the years, says Wang’s as good as Brady, and close to 1996 champ Jennifer Vaughn, who also had a mighty ground game.

“Vaughn was really impressive,” Wedel said. “She cruised through the field like Emily’s doing this year.”

Renberger thinks it’ll be a slam dunk come Saturday.

“There are girls who are capable of playing with her,” he said. “It would take her to be off her game and someone playing up, which is certainly possible. But if she’s on, and focused, I don’t think she’ll lose.”