John F. Russell: Road to state title is rarely easy
Steamboat Springs — Winning a state title is never easy.
Last week, the pressure, the expectations and top-level opponents that define a state championship were standing like a wall between a title and Steamboat Springs freshman Tatum Burger. Her quest to win a state title in the No.1 singles bracket at the 4A Colorado State High School Tennis Tournament caught many of the state’s top players off guard. As those top players fell to the freshman, her confidence continued to grow. When I finally had a chance to talk with her after she won the first two matches of the tournament, she told that she wanted to win the whole thing.
While her confidence caught me off guard, her goal did not. Truth is, all 16 players in the girls No. 1 singles bracket opened the tournament with the same goal, but Burger didn’t hide her ambitions when she was interviewed by reporters.
She knew that, by Wednesday morning, only one player would stand on top of the podium, and that one and only player would be crowned state champion. Truth is, Burger made getting through the brackets look easy as she topped Vanguard senior Alyx Callahan (6-0, 6-2), Colorado Academy junior Tara Edwards ( 7-6, 6-1) and Cheyenne Mountain senior Payton Fielding (6-1, 7-5) before losing her first set of the tournament on the final day.
But the journey to a state title is rarely easy, and despite Burger’s dominating performance, I’m sure bringing home the title was never easy. She endured a season full of hard work, years of playing top-level junior tournaments and three-straight days of focusing on winning in Pueblo. The great thing about Burger is that she understands better than most just how difficult the journey to that title can be. She traveled with her family to state finals for years where she watched her brothers compete with hopes of winning title. She has watched the process unfold dozens of times, and when the chance finally came, she made the most of it.
Through it all Burger kept a smile painted on her face, and her love of the game of tennis could be seen in every serve, in every return and with every match. Through all the pressure of winning a state title, she remained focused on her game and her goals. She may have looked like another freshman playing in her first state tournament. Her opponents may have been taller, they may have looked stronger and, in some cases, more intense. But Burger played like someone who had been their before — like someone who had won at state before.
Burger never seemed to let a missed point or a lost game get into her head. She remained calm and focused. That cool approach took it’s toll on her opponents and played in Burger’s favor for the entire three days.
She reminds me of Ramsey Bernard, who also won a title as a freshman at No. 3 singles. He placed third and second the next two years before wrapping up his high school tennis career by winning the state title at No.1 singles in 2007.
Rarely have I seen that kind of maturity at the state tournament, especially from a freshman. Burger was poised, she made the adjustments she needed to win and she was clearly driven by the opportunity to represent herself and to win a title in her first trip to the finals.
Nobody knows what the future holds for Burger, but after watching her at this year’s finals, it’s hard to imagine she will not be a favorite at next year’s state tournament. Who knows if she will win again, but I would not bet against her. She has the skills to win another title, and she has an understanding that allows her to keep her cool in tight matches. Plus, she has already shown that she has the composure it takes to be a champion.
There is no question Burger is the real deal, and she’s already proven it.
For those of us who witnessed Burger’s road to the state title this year, the freshman’s success was inspirational. Especially for those of us who understand that winning a state title is never easy, even when they make it look like it is.
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