By Kyle LoJacono
High school teachers or coaches can attest top students or athletes are few and far between, so kids like Zephyrhills High junior Sarah Vande Berg come around as often as Halley’s Comet.
Vande Berg has been the No. 1 player on the Bulldogs tennis team since her freshman year. Last year, she helped the program win the first district championship since 1999 and has also qualified individually and as a doubles team for the state tournament as a sophomore and junior.
“She’s definitely my leader,” said six-year Zephyrhills girls tennis coach Lorraine Hinkle. “She cheers on the other girls and is always at practice. I’ll miss her after next year.”
Vande Berg started playing the game around age 6, picking up the game because her father Todd played recreationally. She puts in about 20 hours of practice and workouts in the gym along with another 10-15 hours playing in high school matches and competitive tournaments around Tampa Bay.
The 5-foot-9 Vande Berg has posted an 11-1 record individually this regular season, losing only to River Ridge’s Tijana Subotic in three sets.
Vande Berg is not just limited to success on the court, posting a 4.1 weighted grade point average. Generally she does not finish with tennis each day until about 7:45 p.m. Mix in two or three tournaments each month and there is little time left for homework.
“It’s hard and it’s taken years of practice to be able to manage everything,” Vande Berg said. “You have to find time during the day to get things done. During lunch or if there’s a break in another class, I do homework or study. I just have to find some time.”
If it is hard to find time for homework, there is even less for other things.
“I don’t have any free time,” Vande Berg said. “If I had more time I’d probably just hang out with friends. I never get to do that outside of school.”
Hinkle says Vande Berg’s drive is what keeps her pushing to get better every day.
“I’ve never seen anyone with her focus,” Hinkle said. “All of my girls have always wanted to do well, but Sarah is different. Chelsea Smith last year was very focused, but not like Sarah.”
Smith was Vande Berg’s doubles partner last year, but has since graduated. She now pairs with freshman Sydney Owens.
“Just watching Sarah is a big help for me,” Owens said. “Watching the way she goes after every point and is always working at practice to get better. It’s really amazing to see.”
Vande Berg has been focusing on her fitness during the last year to become an even better player.
“Zephyrhills is kind of a small town,” Vande Berg said. “It’s hard to get noticed for tennis and I want to make it someplace bigger. There have been times when I’d like to just go take a nap, but I know I have the chance to make something out of myself and hard work is what will get me there.”
She added her coaches deserve a lot of credit for her improvement, and also gives thanks to her high school competition.
“The other girls have pushed me to get better,” Vande Berg said. “There are a lot of good players and it makes me work harder. Players like Hannah Still from Wiregrass Ranch and Subotic from River Ridge.”
Vande Berg said her main goal with tennis is to get a college scholarship.
“I might try to go pro after that,” Vande Berg said. “I’m not sure about playing professionally, but I know I want to go get my education first. The goal is to go for premed and then go to med school. If I can get through that alive then maybe I’ll try, but that’s not the first plan.”
Vande Berg lost in the first round of the Class 2A singles tournament last year and in the second round of doubles. Her quest for a state championship begins April 20 in Sanford.