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When Katelyn Stokes began her college tennis career, she was in an unfamiliar position — No. 4 singles, to be exact.

Stokes of Lanham had to work her way up when she joined the tennis team at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take very long.

A three-time Maryland state champion at Eleanor Roosevelt High School and an accomplished player on the U.S. Tennis Association Junior circuit, Stokes rose to the No. 1 singles spot for the Bison this year and went 10-2. She also played alongside Brittney Morgan of Beverly Hills, Calif., to form a strong No. 1 doubles team that went 11-1.

Although there was success on the court this spring, there were distractions off of it, as Howard suspended its athletic programs from March 30-April 6 because some scholarship student-athletes allegedly misused funds they received from the university for the purchase of textbooks. Howard eventually reinstated the teams and allowed the spring season to continue.

“It was challenging because there were a lot of things going on in the athletic department,” Stokes said.

Matches against Mid Eastern Athletic Conference opponents Delaware State and Hampton were cancelled on March 30 and 31, along with an April 5 non-league match against the U.S. Naval Academy. The Bison resumed their season April 7 with a victory against Towson University before heading to the MEAC Championships six days later.

“It was difficult,” Stokes said. “We had to cancel matches toward the end of the season, some critical matches in the conference that would have prepared us better for the MEAC Championships. But we still practiced and stuck to a regular schedule.”

Howard beat Bethune-Cookman and Delaware State to advance to the MEAC title match, but lost to undefeated South Carolina State, which improved to 19-0 and captured the MEAC’s automatic berth in the NCAA Championships.

Howard coach Larry Strickland said Stokes’ rapid ascent through the Bison lineup resulted from her mental approach to the sport.

“Katelyn probably has one of the highest tennis IQs of any player I’ve coached in 27 years,” Strickland said. “She knows how to make the adjustments to play just about every player she plays against. She’s very strong in every area.”

Indeed, strength is the hallmark of Stokes’ game. She was able to overpower most opponents at lower levels, particularly in the high school ranks, by standing on the baseline and simply hitting hard ground strokes.

Facing other NCAA Division I players with similar skills forced Stokes to adapt. Approaching the net isn’t her default strategy, but she has learned to do it.

“She’s worked a lot on her transition game,” Strickland said. “She has improved immensely with that over the last year.”

“Everyone in college can hit a ground stroke,” Stokes said. “I became more strategic. It’s been a little tough. Since I started playing tennis I’ve always been able to stay at the baseline and didn’t need to use my net game. I had it, but I didn’t use it as much. I definitely had to become more aggressive going to the net.”

As she excels on the college level, she is a rarity: Prince George’s County produces few NCAA tennis players. Many high school players in the county don’t start playing the sport until they leave middle school. Stokes was an exception to that. She said she first started playing tennis with her father when she was 6 or 7, and then took lessons at the Tennis Center at College Park.

“My dad took me on the court a couple times, and he’d beat me,” Stokes recalled. “I asked to take lessons so I could beat him, and it turned out I was talented.”

A biology major who hopes to pursue dentistry, Stokes said she hopes more young athletes in Prince George’s County will gravitate toward tennis.

“People need to be educated about tennis,” she said. “It’s not the go-to sport, and it’s expensive. But people don’t know there are a lot of scholarships in tennis at Division I and Division II colleges. I think if there were more information spread about that, more people would become interested.”

selkin@gazette.net