Catch 'em while you can
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston is a town filled with sports fans. In order to get those fans off their keisters, though, athletes performing here must be elite.
Alert to those fans: There are two elite athletes in the ongoing state tennis tournament.
Both represent Huntington High. But, nationally, they also represent West Virginia well.
One is University of Virginia-bound Cassie Mercer, a junior seeking her third straight Class AAA No. 1 title.
If you haven't heard of her, well, it might be because you've talked to her.
"I'm really shy," she said.
She certainly doesn't like talking about herself. Early in her career, she defeated the nation's hottest current junior recruit, Mayo Hibi, but gets mad when her mother Lori brings it up. She's defeated Stanford-bound Caroline Doyle.
Mercer is ranked No. 38 nationally by the Tennis Recruiting Network, but she lets her racket make all the racket. Early Thursday, Buckhannon-Upshur's Erika Ridgeway heard the noise. Ridgeway scored the first point of the match on a return of serve - and then was off the court in a flash, losing 8-0.
Mercer, with ponytail flying and red shoes squeaking, makes short work of most opponents. She's been doing it for a while.
"My parents were both tennis coaches at Marshall," Mercer said. "I've played since I was little."
Her father, John, is the women's tennis coach at Marshall. Her mother was the head coach and then assistant to John before getting out to coach junior players.
"We were there at the tennis courts a lot," Lori Mercer said. "We told Cassie when she was little, 'You can play ... or not.' "
She's played so well, schools lined up to offer scholarships. She quickly decided on Virginia.
"I kind of knew when I went there that's where I wanted to go," Cassie Mercer said. "I visited UNC, Michigan, Duke, Tennessee and Georgia. I decided really early, though."
The other elite athlete is also a Highlander: Hunter Tubert, ranked No. 96 nationally among junior boys. All he did as a high school freshman was win the Class AAA No. 1 title. No. 2 is squarely in sight after an 8-0 Thursday trouncing of John Marshall's Hayden Blazer.
Oh, and kids, if you want to know how to make something of yourself, check out Tubert.
"When I was young, I had these two good coaches [Murphy and Andrea Payne]," Tubert said. "One played college and one played professionally. They got me going.
"I trained after practices. I dedicated myself to it. I played six to seven days a week, all day."
These days he trains with the Mercers. The results include laser-like forehands and backhands that clear the net by a millimeter.
"He's athletic and good on both [forehand and backhand]," Lori Mercer said. "He has a good serve and is a competitor."
"I'm an all-court player," Tubert said. "I can sit back and rally, but I also like to attack the net."
Tubert, a 5-foot-10 sophomore, has already beaten players like Jordan Belga, ranked No. 6 among Florida juniors, and Aron Hiltzik, No. 22 nationally and committed to playing at Illinois.
"I haven't thought of which school I'll go to," he said. "Not this year. I like Alabama overall, but I haven't given much it thought."
The Huntington sophomore showed off a bit Thursday by running back for a shot and striking it back with his racket between his legs. It fell just short of the net, though, prompting him to give Blazer kudos.
Beforehand, he reflected on winning the state title as a freshman.
"It was a great experience," Tubert said. "The moment I won, I was so thrilled and happy. I was excited. This year, my toughest competition is [George Washington High's] Ryan Massinople. I've played him in the past some good matches."
He has great faith in his training partner, Cassie Mercer.
"Cassie is a great player," he said. "She won the states the last two years and does great around the country. She should easily win this. I have full faith in her."
Both are worth catching while you can.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.