Grace Haugen is ready for the next step in her tennis career, but will tennis be ready for her?
The 17-year-old from Cowichan Bay has committed to play for the University of Montana women’s tennis team next year, and she’s optimistic that there will be a full NCAA tennis season to play in.
“The coach said most likely they’ll have stuff figured out for playing regularly by then,” said Haugen, a Grade 12 student at Cowichan Secondary School. “Hopefully that will be true.”
The UM Grizzlies were supposed to start the 2020-21 NCAA tennis season this coming weekend, but their visit to Gonzaga University in Spokane has been postponed due to COVID-19 protocols, and it’s impossible to tell at this point how much of the rest of the season will be played.
Although Haugen didn’t have a chance to visit the campus in Missoula prior to committing to the school before Christmas — again, because of COVID-19 — she has heard great things about UM. Fellow Islander Hannah Sulz, a Qualicum Beach product who was trained by the same coach as Haugen, played at Montana for three years and raved about the facilities and the environment. Although she talked to other programs, UM was always the front-runner.
“I’ve always been in contact with them, as soon as I started talking to schools,” Haugen noted.
It helps that they have the academic program she wants to pursue.
“They have a really good physiotherapy school,” she said. “And that’s what I want to go into.”
Haugen has also talked to current members of the Grizzlies team, and described them as “sweet” with a “family environment.
“Montana really clicked for me,” she said.
Haugen got her start in tennis six and a half years ago when the South Cowichan Lawn Tennis Club held a clinic during a teachers’ strike. Prior to that, she had never held a racket. Coaches there said she had potential, so she entered a rookie tournament in Victoria.
In early 2019, she won U16 provincial indoor singles and doubles titles, then took second in doubles and sixth in singles at nationals. Later that year, she won the U16 provincial outdoor doubles title with partner Stefanie Da Silva, and placed fifth in singles, and finished second in the U18 singles and doubles tournaments. At the U18 outdoor nationals that same year, she and partner Alexandra Nielsen reached the finals, and at the U16 outdoor nationals, she reached the singles consolation final, and made the quarter-finals in doubles with partner Hana Gamracy.
Last March, Haugen placed third in singles and second in doubles with partner Reece Carter at the U18 indoor provincials, and was on her way to another tournament in Las Vegas when everything shut down due to the pandemic. The rest of the indoor and outdoor seasons were cancelled.
While she hasn’t been able to compete for most of the last year, Haugen has been able to practice.
“I’m still managing to train as much as before,” she said. “Tennis is more of a social distance-y sport. We can’t play doubles, but I’m still playing lots of matches, just no actual tournaments.”
Before she got into tennis, Haugen was a competitive motocross racer, and UM coach Steve Ascher acknowledged in a story on the school’s athletics website that her multi-sport ability was one of the reasons he recruited her.
“You’re always looking for someone that does other things because I think you learn so much about yourself by pursuing other disciplines. But how good is dirt biking? That’s an aggressive — bike falls down in the mud, and I have to pick it up and keep going – kind of sport. I really like that,” he said.
“She is really competitive. I like that about her too. She wants to be out there playing, and she’s a good overall athlete. She’s hungry and has a ton of upside in her game.”
Haugen will join the Grizzlies with a 9.26 Universal Tennis Rating, the second-highest UTR on the team, and one of the best in the Big Sky conference. Ascher believes she has the talent to help the team right from the start, and that’s what she wants to do.
“I hope I can contribute to the girls team,” she said. “I hope I can help them make the NCAA tournament. That’s my dream, and it would be so exciting for the team to make the tournament.”