Trio ranked in state’s top 10 prepare to take on all-comers at Southern Sectional

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

NATCHEZ &045;&045; Cami Willard looked like she had been trampled on more times than a fraternity house welcome mat.

Clouds softly rolled over the face of the sun, but it didn’t seem to give the 10-year-old Willard shade from a typical, sticky June morning.

As fuzzy, neon-yellow balls splattered the Duncan Park tennis courts like a conformist’s Picasso, Willard thought, &uot;anywhere, but here.&uot;

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There are times when shaking the lucid dreams loose in more 90-degree heat seems trivial; however, when she sees the leaps and bounds covered in eight months, Willard knows the hard work is worth it.

&uot;I work really hard because I’ve only been playing eight months,&uot; said Willard, one of three Natchez junior girls headed to the United States Tennis Association’s Southern Sectionals in South Carolina today. &uot;I don’t have to rely on a team. I’m really confident because I think I can do very well.&uot;

Willard and fellow Sectional qualifier Madeline Beard &045;&045; both of Natchez who are ranked third and fourth, respectively, for 10-year-olds in the state &045;&045; will compete in Lexington, S.C, while 11-year-old Davis Beard, Madeline’s older sister, competes in Columbia in the 12-year-old division.

All three girls begin their matches Saturday.

&uot;I’m pleased with the transition they’ve made,&uot; said the girls’ coach Frankie Spence, who last sent a junior to Sectionals in 1990 with Lola Taylor. &uot;When kids go from 10 to 12 it’s like taking a baby and them becoming a matured kid. They’ll make the next transition after that easier. I look for them to go next year and the year after that.&uot;

Spence classified the trio as having each having their own identities on the court, with Davis Beard the power hitter, Madeline Beard a more passive player and Willard somewhere in the middle.

Davis Beard, ranked ninth of 37 girls’ 12 singles in Mississippi, said she walks onto the court with a purpose.

&uot;I feel like when I go out there I have to outpower them (opponents),&uot; she said as her cheeks turned a bashful red while she smothered her racket with her pair of sun-soaked arms. &uot;I wanna win more than they do. I feel like I’m in a fight and I want to feel stronger than them.&uot;

Through his summer junior programs and on-going clinics, Spence has eventually nurtured more than 100 kids from novices to collegiate players.

Yet he’s noticed a dropoff in recent years, mostly due to area schools not emphasizing the specialization of individual sports.

&uot;A lot of the schools here are private and the kids play everything,&uot; Spence said. &uot;Hopefully their (Willard and the Davis girls) success will make others see, ‘I could do it too.’&uot;

Both Willard and Madeline Beard are fairly new to the game, although Madeline has had the luxury of watching her older sister swing a racket since Davis was 4.

Madeline Beard, who idolizes professional tour player Andre Agassi for his grit and technique, loves the freedom the sport has to offer.

&uot;I love getting to play on your own, getting to have fun and meet new girls and make new friends,&uot; Madeline Beard said. &uot;It’s what we do every weekend.&uot;

The girls finished in the top four of the respective divisions at the Mississippi Cabot Lodge Junior at the Ridgeland Tennis Center to advance to Sectionals.

Willard, who said nerves often let to disappointments when she first began playing last October, had to win one match to be ensured a trip to Lexington.

&uot;I was really nervous. I thought I was going to easily beat this girl,&uot; said Willard, who now listens to a song called &uot;Elevation&uot; to relax her. &uot;But it ended up going three sets and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’&uot;

All three passed the

Ridgeland test with flying colors. Now comes a tougher examination, one Davis Beard seems confident of acing &045;&045; in more ways than one.

&uot;Mississippi is a weaker state when it comes to tennis, but I think I’ll do well if I can bring my ‘A’ game&uot; to Columbia, Davis Beard said. &uot;I think it’s going to help my game out a lot. It’ll be a nice experience just to talk about.&uot;