Incarnate Word star ties love of tennis to England

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Incarnate Word Academy's top tennis player — among the elite high school players in the state — may not have taken up the sport if her family hadn't moved briefly to England.

Maria Brandt's desire early on was to play soccer, but that sport wasn't popular for girls in the English town where she lived while her dad worked there. It was considered by many there "not proper" for girls, she said. She passed tennis courts every day on her way to school, so she tried it.

"I instantly got hooked on it. I loved it," Brandt said. "It was always tennis after that."

She returned to St. Louis while still in grade school and eventually played in Gateway tournaments and then U.S. Tennis Association competition in both singles and doubles.

The competitive nature and individual accountability of the sport appeals to her. "Just playing and being out there makes me happy," Brandt said. "It's a getaway from school and everything. It's just you and the tennis court."

The senior has a technique for getting focused before a game. "I'll put on my headphones, listen to music and start visualizing playing to help me get ready mentally," she said. "Then once I'm warming up and my opponent's out there, I get right into it."

Doubles competition requires teamwork, an aspect Brandt enjoys as well. "You really get to bond with your doubles partner, and that's awesome."

She called her teammates at Incarnate Word "incredible people" and gave them a shout-out for their talents. For example, she played with Jocelyn Horton, "an awesome player," her freshman and sophomore year; Genna Miller, currently playing at Rockhurst University and "an amazing net player," her junior year; and with Liz Goldstein this year.

Goldstein, a junior, is "so competitive and has the fight and drive in her to want to win every game," Brandt said. "She works incredibly hard at practice and out of practice; she'll go and hit serves, and has just improved so much this summer. I'm looking forward to this season. We've bonded during practice and seem to work really good on the court."

Brandt plays year-round at Creve Coeur Racquet Club, practicing with her coach, Troy Brady, there and with Sami Remis and Gaby Thornton of John Burroughs High School. Remis was second at state last year; Thornton finished first in Class 1. Thornton defeated Brandt earlier in the state playoffs; Brandt ended up seventh after three tournament wins and an 18-1 record during the season.

Brandt feels blessed to attend Incarnate Word. "I prayed before I came here to make the right decision, and I definitely made the right decision. I've met amazing people. I have close relationships. It's taught me time management, and I feel totally prepared for college," she said.

As captain of the team, Brandt leads the Incarnate Word prayer before games. She also says a silent prayer. "Faith is very important to me when it comes to sports," said the parishioner of Immaculate Conception in Dardenne Prairie and graduate of St. Joseph School in Cottleville.

Incarnate Word coach Bob Keefe, cited Brandt's "tremendous work ethic," evidenced by her year-round dedication to the sport and her hard work as a student. "And she has very supportive parents who allow her the opportunity to take lessons, play in tournaments and commit to going out of town on occasion and playing matches," he said.

The commitment is matched by her athletic talent, Keefe said. "She's not Serena Williams, big and strong and power the ball. But she moves well on the court and is a very smart player. Occasionally I give her help, but most of the time she's analyzing what she has to do to beat a certain player. That's something I'm hoping the younger girls in the program are observing."

Brandt will leave her mark at Incarnate Word, Keefe said. "Last year she became the highest finisher in singles (at the state tournament) in the history of Incarnate Word, just a stone's throw away from playing in the fifth-place match."

This year, he said, if Brandt stays healthy and continues to push, "she'll put herself in position to make another trip back to state. That would be a neat reward for her." 

>> Commitment

Incarnate Word tennis coach Bob Keefe said players' commitment to "take the game to the next level" makes a big difference.

He cited Incarnate Word senior Maria Brandt as one of those players. Brandt plays in the number one slot in singles, taking on the best players from other teams. And Keefe is looking forward to her play in doubles with Liz Goldstein.

Keefe is in his second year at Incarnate Word after retiring from coaching and teaching at Belleville West High School for more than 30 years. Last season, Incarnate Word won its district championship and qualified three players to play in the state tournament. Doubles players Genna Miller and Maura Engelhorn, both seniors, won third place at state. The St. Louis area has "a ton of very talented players," Keefe said, citing St. Joseph's Academy among other programs with several outstanding players every year. 

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