Hempfield senior making headlines, helping build girls tennis program

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Monday, September 6, 2021 | 10:14 PM


Whether it’s debating the views of world politicians or setting an example in her own life, Alexis Smith has a passion for leadership.

Smith is a senior on the Hempfield girls tennis team and is one of the top players in the region.

But she also is a standout student, ardent reader and the editor-in-chief in her school journalism class.

“I’m interested in political journalism,” she said, adding that the current climate of politics might be “too stressful” to pursue it in college. “I love debating in school. I’m always the person speaking out on that type of stuff.”

While she might cause a racket in the classroom, it’s what Smith does with a racket that has been particularly impressive.

She qualified for the WPIAL singles championships in 2020, finishing in fourth place. Within the team, she felt that she had a lot to live up to as a junior, as she broke a norm for the program and was named a team captain, an honor typically awarded strictly to seniors.

“I was fortunate enough to have played tennis since I was little, which a lot of people don’t get the opportunity to do,” she said. “For me, I feel like that’s a privilege. I should take that opportunity and lead the girls with it and tell them what I know and what I’ve learned over the years.

“I’m outgoing as a person, and I really love to motivate. It’s something I’m passionate about. So doing that brings me a lot of pride.”

Her unselfish mindset has impressed her coach, Susan Barbe-Stas.

“Her humility and her encouragement to the team and her internal strive to be the best player, is infectious to the girls,” Barbe-Stas said.

Smith began her love of tennis at the age of 5 and started playing in tournaments as a 7-year-old. She has designs on playing at the next level. She has narrowed her potential colleges down to two: Rollins College in Orlando, Fla., or Washington and Lee in Lexington, Va.

But before she heads off to her next school, Smith wants to lead the way for younger Spartans players, even while playing alongside numerous girls with lesser tennis experience than Hempfield has been used to.

“My goal for this year is to set up the team for success, not even just now but for the future,” she said. “These girls are really hard working, even though they started later. Setting them up for success is my No. 1 goal.

She also has personal goals, such as winning as many head-to-head matchups as possible while also being “kind” to her opponents.

Barbe-Stas admits the Spartans are working through a “building year” after finishing fourth in Section 1-3A last year with a 5-3 record. But she is excited about the character of her team.

“When it comes to passion for the sport, we’re as deep as it gets,” she said.

Olivia Eisaman is Hempfield’s second singles player as only a sophomore.

“She’s one of those girls who picked up a racket about a year and a half ago,” Barbe-Stas said. “But if you watch her play, you’d never know it. She’s our battle-back girl. … She plays every match like it’s the last match of her life.”

Mikayla Strane is the third singles player. Angela Long and Raina Slater make up the first doubles pair, while Kiersten Norten and Ella Jones are the second duo.

Two more sets of doubles teams — Makenzie Williams and Stella Wuslich, and Alex Tompkins and Macey Phillips — will also gain meaningful experience this year.

Barbe-Stas has only been with Hempfield tennis for the last two seasons, but she has a great mentor in long-time tennis instructor Jerry Way, who has coached with the program for around two decades.

Way had double knee replacement surgery in July but was back at practice about a month later. Barbe-Stas makes sure he can make it. She picks him up and drives him to practices and matches.

“He has made Hempfield tennis what it is today,” Barbe-Stas said. “He is a class act.”

“He’s always been a big supporter of me and has been there with me since the beginning,” Smith added.

Barbe-Stas, an avid John Wooden fan, has a philosophy that tennis is for anyone who wants to play. So she never says no to a player willing to put in the work and does not cut players.

“If you have the will, we have a spot for you,” she said. “You can’t measure potential. … Every girl deserves a chance.”

And that ideology, Barbe-Stas hopes, breeds a culture of winning, whether that happens this year or takes some time.

“We’d like to make playoffs, since we made playoffs last year,” she said. “We’d like to win as many as we can. But, more importantly, I’d like for each player to become their best player.”

With Smith, they certainly have an example of who to become.

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