Julienne Angtuaco of Pulaski Academy is just a junior, but she’s as battle-tested as they come on the tennis court.
Last year’s Class 4A state runner-up in singles has played in a bevy of tournaments and won matches on numerous tennis circuits already. But she admitted to feeling some nerves before the start of Tuesday’s match against Pallavi Verghese of Fayetteville.
“Things started out rough, to be honest,” she said. “It was our first match of the season, and I was really nervous. Tennis is an individual sport, and we don’t have big crowds to help hype us up or calm us down. So we have to be our own cheerleaders and motivate ourselves.
“But once I kind of settled down, I was able to zone in and make less errors to get myself going.”
Angtuaco and the rest of her Pulaski Academy teammates are just happy they’re playing at all this fall.
The coronavirus pandemic canceled spring sports and cast doubt on fall activities. But a decision by the Arkansas Activities Association paved the way for both Pulaski Academy and Fayetteville to test themselves against one another in a series of singles and doubles contests at Burns Park Tennis Center in North Little Rock.
“It feels great just to be able to play, considering everything that’s gone on,” said Angtuaco, who shook off those pre-match jitters to beat Verghese 6-3, 6-1. “School tennis is the only time where we get the chance to really be a team. When we go out and play tournaments, we’re all by ourselves. But together, just being able to have that support is so exciting because the energy is always high, and we all root for each other.”
That vivacity was evident throughout a day that saw Pulaski Academy’s top two singles performers on both the boys and girls teams pull away for victories.
Junior Joiner Love, one of five all-state players for the Lady Bruins, knocked off Caroline Stewart 6-2, 6-2.
On the boys side, senior Anthony Tran, who lost in the singles final of the Class 4A state tournament last year, beat freshman Jacob Nordin 6-1, 6-0. Jack Lewis held off sophomore Michael Mathias 6-3, 6-4.
“This was absolutely good for us,” said Pulaski Academy Coach Bill Topich, who guided both the Bruins and Lady Bruins to state championships a year ago. “It’s good to have tough competition early in the year. I think it sets the bar pretty high for us going into other matches this season.”
Fayetteville Coach Darin Phelan was thankful to make the 21/2-hour drive south to take on Pulaski Academy.
“We’re lucky that we’re playing an outdoor sport,” Phelan said. “I hate it for some of the other sports that are being affected right now, but we’re thrilled to be out here. Getting to see the other talents from the Central Arkansas area, we usually don’t see them until we get to the state tournament.
“So being able to come out here and get with Coach Topich to make this happen was great.”
Verghese, a sophomore, missed all of last season because of a torn ACL but made strides against Angtuaco. She pushed the Lady Bruins’ top player occasionally and moved well despite wearing a brace on her right leg.
“[Pulaski Academy] has a lot of good players, so this was good for us,” she said. “To go from being worried about even having a season because of the virus to now having our third match of the year, it’s definitely an awesome feeling for us. For me, it was tough to run around and stuff, but I’m getting there.”
The Pulaski Academy boys team was missing a key player in transfer Noah Becker, who’s sidelined because of an injury. But Topich does have an accomplished player in Tran, and he appeared to be in top form against Nordin.
“I was really impressed by him, though,” Tran said of the Bulldogs’ youngster. “I think my experience kind of was the difference in the end. For me, I look forward to every time I step on the court. Everybody else has been having their seasons halted because of the virus.”