Samford-bound Northcutt leaves Lions in good shape

Photo: David McGregor  Peachtree Ridge's Jessica Northcutt is the Daily Post girl's tennis player of the year.

Photo: David McGregor Peachtree Ridge's Jessica Northcutt is the Daily Post girl's tennis player of the year.

When Jessica Northcutt first reflects on her final year of high school tennis a bit of melancholy sets in.

Sure, the Lions won their third straight Region 7-AAAAA state title and ended the year 19-3, while earning a state No. 1 ranking along the way. But one of those three losses came in a close showdown with Roswell in the state championship match and Northcutt fell short in her No. 1 singles match to former homeschool friend Laura Patterson.

"We really wanted to win state this year," Northcutt said. "We've always wanted to win state, the past two years, but this year would have been even better.

"For me, it would have been nice to get the state ring my senior year. She just played better than I did."

But one match doesn't define Northcutt's or the Lions's season. The trip to the state championship is the furthest any Peachtree Ridge girls tennis team ever made it and that was after losing Mary Jeremiah, now at Oklahoma State, to graduation. Plus, defending the 7-AAAAA title in unbeaten fashion.

"That is nice to say," Northcutt said.

And after all her successes in high school and her future career at Samford, the idea of Northcutt not playing tennis at all seems strange. But it wasn't until middle school when Northcutt traded in a saddle for a racket.

Northcutt played tennis, swam and rode horses growing up and at around age 7 dropped all but the riding.

"I like it the best," Northcutt said.

But Northcutt made a pragmatic choice in middle school to turn her full attention to tennis.

"I decided to go to tennis because that would be way easier to do in college than getting a scholarship in equestrian would have been," she said.

Northcutt dropped out of traditional schooling in seventh and eighth grade so she could fill her schedule traveling to tennis tournaments.

"I feel like if I hadn't focused on it so much, I wouldn't (have been so successful)," Northcutt said. "I was missing way too much school."

Now she's focused on balancing school and tennis as she moves on to Samford.

Northcutt spent the early part of this week at Samford, sitting through college orientation and registering for classes. She picked the Alabama school over Elon to continue playing tennis for the team and the school's Christian philosophy.

"I know it's hard for college students to stay connected through church and that's important to me," she said. "The coach and the girls on the team had a big factor."

It was her four years playing high school tennis that taught Northcutt the importance and the enjoyment of a team even int the hyper-individual world of tennis.

"It's much more nerve-racking when you are on a team, it makes you more nervous," Northcutt said. "When you lose in junior tennis, you are only disappointed in yourself. When you lose in high school tennis you put so much pressure on yourself.

"I think it's more fun, definitely. Team tennis is much more fun."

Northcutt remembers watching and cheering during the last match of the state meet as her teammate Abby Owens lost a third-set thriller. The results weren't what any Peachtree Ridge player wanted, but the memory and pressure of team tennis sticks with Northcutt.

"I felt bad for (Owens) more than I felt bad for myself," Northcutt said. "She just got the bad luck and had to be the last one on the court. Bad timing, I guess."

But Northcutt is certain the success she helped establish at Peachtree Ridge will continue with players like Owens returning. And for Northcutt, it's off to another challenge.

"I am really excited," she said of college tennis. "Hopefully, it's team again, so hopefully I'll like it a lot."