Multi-tasking Cats finding their form

Carolyn Van Houten/The Herald
Jasper No. 1 doubles players Elisabeth Ahlbrand, left, and Brooke Lueken take an 18-2 record into this weekend’s individual doubles state finals at Park Tudor High School in Indianapolis. In a sport where successful players often specialize, Ahlbrand and Lueken have uncovered tennis prosperity as they split time with other sports.

Herald Sports Editor

Watch Elisabeth Ahlbrand elevate for one of her trademark line-painting kills in volleyball, or see Brooke Lueken feistily box out a basketball center who’s got 5 inches on her, and it’s apparent the two are pretty capable athletes.

The Jasper tennis players just need the idea reinforced to them every now and again.

Case in point: when they played Center Grove earlier this season and encountered nothing but lob after confounding lob. Jasper tennis coach Scott Yarbrough guessed that if they got lobbed, say, 30 times, the lob burned them 25 of those times.

“The one thing they didn’t realize is, ‘I jump pretty well and I’ve got a racket in my hand that’s almost 3 foot long, and I can get to a lot of balls,’” Yarbrough said. “Elisabeth jumps very well and Brooke has pretty quick feet.”

The next week in practice, all they saw were low lobs that came with one order: Jump as high as you can to get them. It was easy as terminating a kill in volleyball or soar for a rebound in basketball. Ever since, they’ve mostly solved the labyrinth of the lob, and Lueken and Ahlbrand have used their broad scope of skills to prove a point: Being an athlete who dabbles in a little of everything doesn’t preclude you from tennis success.

Lueken and Ahlbrand (18-2) are one of six teams in contention for the individual doubles state finals at Park Tudor High School in Indianapolis this weekend, and as they’ve received a bye into the semifinals, they’re essentially already in the final four. Five of the seven girls on this year’s varsity squad were of the tennis-only variety, and it’s the multi-taskers in Lueken and Ahlbrand who’ve distinguished themselves as the latest in the sorority of standout Wildcat doubles squads.

Their time away from tennis has been spent bountifully as Lueken, a senior, has played for two sectional champion basketball squads and Ahlbrand, a junior, played for one of those hoops teams and has factored into two semistate-qualifying volleyball teams. The whirlwind of sports is standard procedure in the Ahlbrand family; her father, Jason, is an assistant coach on the baseball team, and when the tennis semistate and baseball sectional semifinals overlapped two weekends ago, Jason had someone set up a video camera at tennis to capture his daughter’s match. And after the sting of the baseball team’s loss that day to Southridge, Elisabeth came home later in the day to find her dad playing back her tennis match.

That battle, a 6-3, 6-4 triumph over Floyd Central, revealed how the two are learning to smack away the pressure moments like a hanging volley.

In a marathon first game that flipped to deuce several times and may have established momentum for the match, Ahlbrand and Lueken finally took it. In the second set, Floyd Central erased Jasper’s break-of-serve lead to forge a 4-all tie. No matter. Lueken and Ahlbrand broke right back, then served out the match with no stress.

“We’ve played in tight basketball games and we’ve played in basketball sectionals,” Ahlbrand said. “That’s one thing that definitely kind of keeps us one step ahead of other people, is we have that experience of being in those tight situations in other sports. I think that helps.”

Plus, as Ahlbrand revealed, “I think it helps that we have a program that allows us to play every day in the summer.”

The schedule goes something like this:

Hitting sessions in tennis from 6:45 a.m. to 8:15.

Teach tennis camp from 8:30 to noon.

Match play at 12:30 p.m.

Then switch out of tennis mode for basketball at 2 p.m.

And for Ahlbrand, tack on a volleyball session at 4. The tennis-basketball-volleyball triple happens only two days a week, but it’s a doozy.

“Usually I go home and lay down for a few hours. Sometimes I don’t even go out at night,” Ahlbrand said of the recovery. “Pretty tired.”

Lueken even sneaked in tennis lessons during basketball season, though that ended when she stepped on a tennis ball, sprained an ankle and had to sit out a couple weeks of the basketball season.

The grind, though, has its benefits.

The palette of sports allows them to “not get tired of tennis,” Ahlbrand pointed out. Lueken added that in terms of tennis technique, it’s sometimes easier to avoid getting entrenched in bad habits if you’re not toiling away at it daily.

It rubs the other way, too.

“When they first start coming back (into tennis), they want to hit the ball like they did when they left. And that doesn’t happen,” Yarbrough said. “Elisabeth fights that a little bit, because she ends up being in three (sports). She’s a very talented tennis player, but when she comes back, she wants to hit the ball like she stopped hitting it back in July. You may be hitting it well one day, but the next day it’s going to be awful.

“For a while, we were struggling compared to everyone else, because they were playing all winter,” Ahlbrand agreed.

“But we got back into it,” Lueken completed the thought.

The beauty of the multi-sporters is that, given a little patience, they’ll dredge up their best tennis at season’s end. Ever since that Center Grove setback that was downright unsightly in their coach’s eyes, “since then they have played really good tennis. And I think the momentum is swinging that direction,” said Yarbrough, noting that Ahlbrand is the first three-sport athlete to come through the tennis program in recent memory.

“I think it speaks volumes of their athleticism. ... We’ve only had four (girls doubles) teams to make it to the final four. In 40 years, they’re the fourth team to get to the final four. That’s pretty good.”

Contact Brendan Perkins

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