COLUMBIA — In three years, Clara Baldwin has played tennis for all three public high schools in Columbia. She played for Rock Bridge High School as a freshman, spent her sophomore year at Hickman and has now landed at Battle High School's new program for her junior year.
“Some people think it would be weird for me (playing at three different schools),” Baldwin said. “But it’s nice because I’ve made friends on all the teams. When I play them it is nice seeing them.”
Baldwin said she's been playing tennis for a long time, but didn’t begin competitive play until recently. She credits her father, who played in college, with sparking her early love of the game. From an early age, the two began hitting tennis balls together.
“I didn’t start seriously until about three years ago, but I have been playing since I was about five,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin was one of only two members of the Battle tennis team who had played prior to this season. Baldwin, who plays as a No. 1 on the team, has taken private lessons and competed in United States Tennis Association tournaments to prepare for her high school competition. She says her ultimate goal is to play in college, just like her dad.
"(My goal right now is to) do well at districts with my (doubles) partner Gillian (Schulte)," Baldwin said. She said that beyond this season, she plans to train hard in the off-season and finish strong in her senior year.
Battle tennis coach John Mize said Baldwin’s dedication and leadership on the court have been key factors in building the program.
“So many of the girls don’t have athletic backgrounds, and they have never really played on a team," Mize said. "Having Clara model how it is to work hard and condition has really just paved the way and lead the way for us.”
Not only is Baldwin a model competitor, Mize said, but she also helps motivate her teammates through her hard work.
“There would be times when Clara would be losing the match,” Mize said. “She would be down 0-4, 0-3. She would come back, fight, paw and scratch and come back and win. Again, that just sets that gritty atmosphere that the girls, no matter if they are down, they can still keep playing and come back and win.”
Battle's other players look up to Baldwin and, at times, are even more comfortable going to Baldwin than their coach for advice.
"They will go up and ask her, 'Hey, what should we do?’" Mize said. "On the bus trips — even just sitting on the bleachers getting a drink of water — they will ask her tons of questions."
Baldwin also takes time on the weekends to help her less experienced teammates learn the sport.
"I go out on the weekends because they will text me and be like ‘Clara lets meet up and hit,’" Baldwin said. "I try and teach them and give them advice. They will come ask me questions sometimes in meets and stuff."
The advice and extra practice have already paid off for Battle. The team won its first varsity match against Hannibal on Oct. 3. Baldwin and Schulte both won their single matches 8-0. The two then joined forces to win their doubles match 8-2.
"It's nice to let her take the leadership role on that and let her sail with it," Mize said. "She has been a huge value."