If you go
What: Colorado state tennis championships
When: Thursday-Saturday, May 10-12
Where: Class 3A at Centennial Park in Greeley; Class 4A at Pueblo City Park; Class 5A at Gates Tennis Center, Denver
NIWOT — Whenever a young player is talented enough to reach Colorado's Class 4A state tournament at No. 1 singles, one common question asked is how that player will respond to the pressure of the moment at Pueblo City Park?
That doesn't appear to be much of a concern about Niwot freshman Lucy Lu.
Among the best players around in her age group, Lu routinely plays national-level tournaments. Just as recently as April 21-23, the Cougars ninth-grader placed fourth in the 16-year-old age group at the USTA National Level 3 Tournament in Long Beach, Calif.
If anything, the Colorado state tournament might be a lower-pressure situation in a lot of ways compared to what the Cougars' jet-setting freshman is used to, but that doesn't mean it won't be a challenging new experience for Lu, especially considering the team dynamic that differentiates high school tennis from its club counterpart.
"It's a lot different than the national tournaments," Lu said. "It's really fun to have a team backing you up and supporting you. My goal is definitely to win state because I think I'm capable of that. But I'll have to be focused and play my best."
Of course, the state tournament Thursday through Saturday will also be different in that Lu's competition won't be limited by any age grouping. She is one of just two freshmen in a 4A No. 1 singles draw that also includes four seniors, six juniors and four sophomores.
The No. 1 singles field will also feature Cheyenne Mountain's Morgan Hall, who is the only in-state player to beat Lu this season. That regular-season match, which Hall won 6-4, 1-6, 6-4, very well could be a preview of the state championship match next week.
"The first time we played, it was really close so I still think I can win," Lu said. "But I'm also going into the tournament just looking to enjoy the entire experience."
Niwot head coach Aimee Keronen is certainly looking forward to watching a potential rematch. Irwin also said she is excited to see how the freshman handles herself at the state tournament. If she had to guess, Irwin said she expects Lu to be calm and collected, as usual.
"She's just so mentally tough," Keronen said. "She just got fourth at nationals and she's at that level where she's traveling all the time and she's playing these high-pressure matches. It's a little different for her, this high school stuff. Now it's not just about yourself, it's about the team. She had to adjust to that a little bit early on but now she's just relaxing and enjoying the team dynamic.
"When she gets down to state, all the top girls she's going to see at one singles, she's already played at some point and the matches have been close. So she's right there and we'll see."
Lu's arrival to take the top ladder spot as a freshman strengthens an already-strong Cougars lineup that placed eighth in the team scoring last season and regularly finishes in the top 10, if not the top five. The Cougars swept the Region 5 tournament on Saturday and feel as confident as ever given how well they're playing at the end of the season.
Even with perennial champion Cheyenne Mountain the clear favorite to win once again, the Cougars feel good about their chances after losing just 4-3 to the Indians during a regular-season dual on March 17 and taking three of the four matches they lost to three sets. Cougars senior Julia Pentz is undefeated at No. 3 singles after placing third at No. 2 singles last season, fellow senior Taylor Thulson has just one loss at No. 2 singles and the Cougars expect to show quite well in the doubles matches.
"This year, our goal is to win it all and we're capable," Keronen said. "We've been working hard on the mental aspect more than ever before and this year we actually have a mental coach that we're working with. It's amazing to see the girls working on those things because physically, we can beat anybody. But the mental part is what separates the top girls at state."