Christian Academy tennis coach Jeff Mallory was observing a clinic nearly a decade ago when he spotted an exceptional 7-year-old player on a nearby court.
“She was very small but yet she had really good technique and was playing aggressively,” recalled Mallory. “I just remember thinking ‘Who in the world is this little girl?’ ”
That little girl was Ellie Gerlach.
Now a 16-year-old sophomore, Gerlach is a star for the Lady Centurions (5-2) and a strong contender to win this year’s state singles title.
The daughter of two Division-I athletes and younger sister to three tennis-playing brothers, Gerlach was absorbing the game’s finer points while most of her peers were still in the sandbox.
Taught By Spencer
Since joining the varsity squad in sixth grade, Gerlach has racked up a remarkable 72 wins and just eight losses. In 2009, as a seventh-grader, she and partner Emily Mallory won the Kentucky High School Athletic Association state doubles title. A regional singles crown and a trip to the state quarterfinals came the following season.
Last year Gerlach claimed her second-straight regional singles title before falling 6-0, 6-3 to senior Samantha Maddox of Lexington Catholic in the state final.
“I think she’s always been a little bit precocious because she has three older brothers,” said Dr. Jo Ellen Gerlach, Ellie’s mom and a former tennis player at Kentucky.
Brothers Hunter, 26, Taylor, 24, and Dylan, 21, all played at Manual and were key in Ellie’s development.
“I watched them so much since I was little and really got to know the game at a young age,” Ellie said. “There’s never a reason why I can’t hit or practice.”
Hunter and Dylan went on to play at Murray State. Ellie’s father, Dr. Chip Gerlach, was an outfielder at Louisville from 1972-1976.
In addition to the high school season, Gerlach crosses the country competing in United States Tennis Association (USTA) junior tournaments and is looking forward to another summer on the road.
“(Tennis) brings so many new opportunities. I get to travel to like fifteen states a year … and meet all these new girls and people and coaches. It’s just a really exciting adventure,” she said.
Even with the time and travel demands, Gerlach maintains a 3.9 GPA in the honors track at CAL and, unlike some junior players on the USTA circuit, she is unwilling to sacrifice her high school experience.
“People have made (tennis) into something that I don’t really like. (You’re expected to) just give up everything in your life and live in an academy away from your parents and play tennis for eight hours every day.
“Many of my friends in USTA tennis do this and I see a lot of them get injured and quit because of it. No one wants to do that,” Gerlach said. “Honestly, I’ve just found a happy medium. On the weekend I don’t play tennis as much and have a little fun.”
According to Spencer, Gerlach’s multidimensional nature carries over to the court.
“If she’s having a bad day she still finds a way to win. Whether she has to come in (to the net), hit more balls out of the air or push the ball…she stays out there and does what it takes,” he said.
The three-time All-State selection is 5-0 this season and has yet to drop a set. With six more victories Gerlach will surpass Emily Mallory (77 career wins) to become CAL’s all-time wins leader, but her primary goal is a singles title.
“It’s not going to be easy. People say because Samantha (Maddox) graduated that I’m automatically going to win and that’s not true at all because there are a lot of great girls,” Gerlach said.
Test Next Week
On April 26 Gerlach will get a mid-season test when Fort Thomas Highlands and highly regarded freshman Meredith Laskey come to town. Laskey was the No. 2 seed in last year’s state tournament as an eighth-grader.
“I’m excited to play her because I’ve heard a lot of great things about her,” said Gerlach. “We’ve never played so it’s going to be really interesting.”
Contact columnist Chris Cahill at email@example.com.
Photos By CHRIS CAHILL | Contributing Photographer