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Competition drives Lions' Northcutt

Photo: Andrew McMurtrie. Peachtree Ridge's  Jessica Northcutt is the Daily Post Girls Tennis Player of the Year.

Photo: Andrew McMurtrie. Peachtree Ridge's Jessica Northcutt is the Daily Post Girls Tennis Player of the Year.

SUWANEE -- A certain amount of competition among teammates can be a healthy thing.

That's the way it was among the Peachtree Ridge girls tennis team this spring, with junior Jessica Northcutt and senior Mary Jeremiah competing with each other to see who would represent the Lions at No. 1 singles throughout the season.

While the pair switched back and forth throughout the season, coach Chrissie Bolt ultimately selected the younger Northcutt for Line 1 for the Class AAAAA state tournament run.

Both Northcutt and Jeremiah responded well by helping the Lions to a second straight Region 7-AAAAA championship and second straight trip to the Class AAAAA state quarterfinals.

But it was Northcutt's rapid improvement from an already strong sophomore season a year ago to an even more dominant junior campaign that made her the Daily Post's 2011 Girls Player of the Year.

"Jessica's really improved in the past year," Bolt said of Northcutt, who went 13-1 this spring, with many of those wins coming in straight sets. "As she gets older and more mature, she's getting smarter on the court. You can tell she's thinking more on the court and developing strategy.

"And her aggressiveness and finishing off points and setting things up have all improved this year. She's being more aggressive at the net, and when she gets up on someone, she's not going to let up."

While Northcutt admits the internal competition with Oklahoma State-bound Jeremiah helped her become more aggressive this season, she also said the support from her senior teammate also helped her make the transition to No. 1 singles.

"We decided (on the switch, in part) together," Northcutt said. "I try not to think about it as being a big responsibility. It's just like playing any other line. It counts as much as any other. I think we decided it because we knew it would put me at No. 1 if we made it to (play) Walton (at state), and that's what we were hoping for.

"Emily Zabor is (Jeremiah's) best friend, and they don't really like playing each other. I prefer playing Emily more than Mary does. So, we thought it would be best if we made it to Walton."

Northcutt played Zabor tough, especially in taking the Walton No. 1 to a second-set tie-breaker before falling 6-0, 7-6, though it wasn't enough to derail the Raiders from their eighth straight state title -- which they won less than two weeks later with a win over Norcross -- and their 147th consecutive match win.

However, Bolt believes that match -- the only loss for Northcutt in 14 varsity matches this season -- and the second straight elimination at the hands of Walton will only add to both her competitive fire, as well as the rest of the Lions.

"I definitely got to see some fire in her that I hadn't seen before," Bolt said of Northcutt. "I know that was a very disappointing match for her because she played her heart out. But it just fuels her for next season."

What also fuels Northcutt is the knowledge that with Jeremiah moving on to Oklahoma State in the fall, she will not only be looked upon for continued dominance at the No. 1 singles spot.

She will also be looked to for team leadership as the Lions try to take that next step to get past the quarterfinals and perhaps challenge to finally unseat Walton as state champion.

And she says she is ready for that responsibility, though there are some things she will be working on to improve her game over the summer playing in USTA tournaments.

"I'm trying to focus on not getting nervous in matches," said Northcutt, currently ranked No. 21 in Georgia in the Girls 18s by the USTA. "I did get a little nervous (against Walton), and that hurt me in the first set, but I think I did better at overcoming that in the second.

"It was a bummer that we had to face (Walton) in the quarters. We're hoping we're going to get that far (next year), and they lose a lot of players. ... But we definitely have to just keep playing well because if we look too far ahead, it will hurt us in the regular season."