Bill Koster knew Clear Springs High School’s Alli Schwartz had a future in the game of tennis.
Just how quickly Schwartz would catch on has been a pleasant surprise to both.
Schwartz, who Koster taught tennis to in her early years, finds herself two days away from playing in the girls singles quarterfinals of the University Interscholastic League Class 6A State Championships as a freshman.
Quite a feat considering Schwartz had to knock off Cypress Fairbanks’ heavily-favored Kayal Gownder at last month’s Region III-6A Championships to eventually earn her state berth as the regional runner-up.
“Oh man, what a thrill that was,” Koster said of Schwartz’s 6-4, 7-6 (8-6) semifinal upset of Gownder, the No. 1 seed. “That was really exciting. She battled hard mentally and physically.”
But those were winning traits Koster saw in Schwartz at a smaller scale when she first lived in Texas City.
At the time, Schwartz was taking tennis classes at the Lowry Center under the direction of her then teaching professional Charlie Brooks.
“Charlie told me one of his kids was a good player and wanted to get better, so he got me in touch with her father,” Koster said, recalling Schwartz as a promising nine-year-old.
“She was pretty serious about wanting to get good. She liked to win. She would hit on the wall on her own and practiced with a purpose. She just had a great work ethic, and that paid off. She was a worker even when she was little.”
Bi-weekly lessons later, Schwartz lived up to her expectations, and much more.
“She came on quick,” said Koster, who Schwartz affectionately calls her “third grandpa.” “She listened, she was coachable, she always would do what I recommended.”
One of those recommendations was finishing the practice session by hitting 400 balls in a row without missing.
“It was tiring,” Schwartz said. “But it not only helped my fitness, it helped me stay focused, extremely. Just staying focused on the drill was challenging itself.
“To be honest, I was pretty lazy as a kid, so this really, really helped.”
The two started off hitting 50 balls in a row, then 100, steadily building the increments up to the 400 goal.
“It’s a good drill,” said Koster, a standout himself at Alvin High School and later Sam Houston State University. “It’s good for concentration, working on watching the ball and not missing. I preached consistency to her.
“Alli always liked hitting winners. Now she can stay back and work the point. That semifinal (against Gownder) was a nail-biter, but she was tough mentally and saved two set points (in the second set), winning it in a tiebreaker.”
Unfortunately, though, Schwartz fell victim to Pearland Dawson’s No. 2-seeded Kyler Powe in what proved to be the championship match, losing by a disappointing 6-0, 6-2 count.
“After the match I asked her with a tough loss like that, what did she learn from it,” Koster said. “‘What can you take from that loss to get better?’”
Schwartz admitted she over-celebrated the semifinal win and lost that same needed focus against Powe.
“I was way too happy in what I did,” Schwartz said. “I was over the moon. That was my biggest mistake. I didn’t validate my semifinal win with my final.
“I was pretty tired, too.”
So since the regional tournament, Schwartz has been working on improving her game even more, both physically and mentally.
“Alli was practicing on it the next day,” Koster said with a proud smile. “She went right back to work, because she realized she had to.
“She just has that desire. She’s a fighter, and she’s not afraid of a tough match. She believes in herself, that she always has a chance to win. That’s where all the hard work comes in.”
Schwartz makes her state debut at 8 a.m. Thursday against Duncanville’s Daniela Padron-Castillo, the Region I-6A champion, with a chance to play either Austin Lake Travis’ Megha Dania or Klein Oak’s Antonella Benevides later in the semifinals at 2:30 p.m.
“I really didn’t think I’d be going to state this year as a freshman,” Schwartz said. “I pretty much felt I’d at least be going to regionals.
“I honestly don’t know anything about (Padron-Castillo). I’m just going to go out there and play my style, playing aggressive but being accurate at the same time. If it works, great, and if not, it’s not my day.”
Rest assured, though, if it takes hitting 400 balls in a row to get the job done, Schwartz will do just that.
With “third grandpa” close by cheering her on one ball at a time, just like the old Lowry Center days.