Christian Academy tennis coach Jeff Mallory was observing a clinic nearly a decade ago when he spotted an exceptional 7-year-old player on a nearby court.
â€œShe was very small but yet she had really good technique and was playing aggressively,â€ recalled Mallory. â€œI just remember thinking â€˜Who in the world is this little girl?â€™ â€
That little girl was Ellie Gerlach.
Now a 16-year-old sophomore, Gerlach is a star for the Lady Centurions (5-2) and a strong contender to win this yearâ€™s state singles title.
The daughter of two Division-I athletes and younger sister to three tennis-playing brothers, Gerlach was absorbing the gameâ€™s finer points while most of her peers were still in the sandbox.
Taught By Spencer
Since joining the varsity squad in sixth grade, Gerlach has racked up a remarkable 72 wins and just eight losses. In 2009, as a seventh-grader, she and partner Emily Mallory won the Kentucky High School Athletic Association state doubles title. A regional singles crown and a trip to the state quarterfinals came the following season.
Last year Gerlach claimed her second-straight regional singles title before falling 6-0, 6-3 to senior Samantha Maddox of Lexington Catholic in the state final.
â€œI think sheâ€™s always been a little bit precocious because she has three older brothers,â€ said Dr. Jo Ellen Gerlach, Ellieâ€™s mom and a former tennis player at Kentucky.
Brothers Hunter, 26, Taylor, 24, and Dylan, 21, all played at Manual and were key in Ellieâ€™s development.
â€œI watched them so much since I was little and really got to know the game at a young age,â€ Ellie said. â€œThereâ€™s never a reason why I canâ€™t hit or practice.â€
Hunter and Dylan went on to play at Murray State. Ellieâ€™s father, Dr. Chip Gerlach, was an outfielder at Louisville from 1972-1976.
In addition to the high school season, Gerlach crosses the country competing in United States Tennis Association (USTA) junior tournaments and is looking forward to another summer on the road.
â€œ(Tennis) brings so many new opportunities. I get to travel to like fifteen states a year â€¦ and meet all these new girls and people and coaches. Itâ€™s just a really exciting adventure,â€ she said.
Even with the time and travel demands, Gerlach maintains a 3.9 GPA in the honors track at CAL and, unlike some junior players on the USTA circuit, she is unwilling to sacrifice her high school experience.
â€œPeople have made (tennis) into something that I donâ€™t really like. (Youâ€™re expected to) just give up everything in your life and live in an academy away from your parents and play tennis for eight hours every day.
â€œMany of my friends in USTA tennis do this and I see a lot of them get injured and quit because of it. No one wants to do that,â€ Gerlach said. â€œHonestly, Iâ€™ve just found a happy medium. On the weekend I donâ€™t play tennis as much and have a little fun.â€
According to Spencer, Gerlachâ€™s multidimensional nature carries over to the court.
â€œIf sheâ€™s having a bad day she still finds a way to win. Whether she has to come in (to the net), hit more balls out of the air or push the ballâ€¦she stays out there and does what it takes,â€ he said.
The three-time All-State selection is 5-0 this season and has yet to drop a set. With six more victories Gerlach will surpass Emily Mallory (77 career wins) to become CALâ€™s all-time wins leader, but her primary goal is a singles title.
â€œItâ€™s not going to be easy. People say because Samantha (Maddox) graduated that Iâ€™m automatically going to win and thatâ€™s not true at all because there are a lot of great girls,â€ Gerlach said.
Test Next Week
On April 26 Gerlach will get a mid-season test when Fort Thomas Highlands and highly regarded freshman Meredith Laskey come to town. Laskey was the No. 2 seed in last yearâ€™s state tournament as an eighth-grader.
â€œIâ€™m excited to play her because Iâ€™ve heard a lot of great things about her,â€ said Gerlach. â€œWeâ€™ve never played so itâ€™s going to be really interesting.â€
Contact columnist Chris Cahill at email@example.com.
Photos By CHRIS CAHILL | Contributing PhotographerÂ