By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
For all intents and purposes, Sarah Dvorak ran out of competition on the Big Island at the ripe age of 12. A year later, Dvorak already had become the top-ranked junior in the Hawaii.
When it came time to choosing a college, the Waiakea senior followed the same instinct that’s always helped her unleash furious groundstrokes at her opponents on the tennis court: she didn’t play it safe.
Pepperdine was picturesque and had a coach’s blessing, and Oregon was the preordained favorite. But something about the big-school, small-town nature of Texas Tech just felt right.
“I wanted to go to a big-name school,” said Dvorak, who signed her national letter of intent with the Red Raiders on Wednesday. “I didn’t want to work so hard and then say I’m going somewhere and people have no idea what it was. I wanted to go to a huge school.”
At the same time, the Waiakea senior said her recruiting visit to “middle-of-nowhere” Lubbock, Texas, gave of her a taste of the Big Island.
“When I got there I fell in love with the little town,” she said. “It was like Hilo. When you meet people they give you a hug. It was kind of like here.”
So, she’ll trade pidgin for Texas twang.
Texas Tech coach Todd Petty outrecruited Pepperdine, Oregon, Purdue and the University of Illinois to win over Dvorak. She took official visits to all five colleges, and they were among the more than 30 Division I schools to offer her full-ride scholarships. Dvorak is considered a recruiting jewel. As the 29th-ranked senior prospect in the country by TennisRecruiting.com and No. 1 in Hawaii, she’s the biggest get for the Red Raiders program to date.
Dvorak’s primary coach most of her life had been her mom, Rose, but she’s also worked with Evan Schermer, the director of tennis at Royal Kona Resort. Schermer likes to joke that Dvorak is the first person to choose Lubbock, Texas, over Malibu, Calif., home to Pepperdine.
But for Dvorak, the relationships she formed with Petty and Red Raiders players on her short visit to the remote, arid West Texas town of approximately 230,000 people were too hard to pass.
“Coach is really serious on-court, but he still jokes and he acts like a kid, too,” Dvorak said. “All the girls were so nice. They really made me feel so at home there.
“I like that he has the girls babysit his kids and they come over for dinner. It felt like a family, and I feel like I need that.”
Petty’s getting an aggressive, hard-hitting player that he figures will have every chance to vie for a spot at the top of the singles lineup of his emerging program. Texas Tech is the two-time defending Big 12 champion and ended last season ranked 18th nationally.
“I think she’s a very mature player, offensive-minded with a fearless style,” he said. “I also like her background. She made the most of a difficult situation and didn’t get the same amount of attention that others might of, but she made the most of her opportunities.”
When she’s competed at mainland tournaments, Dvorak says most players and coaches just assume that her fine-tuned game is the product of a tennis academy.
However, Dvorak’s training has been much more humble. There have been many a back-and-forth weekend trips to Kailua-Kona to work with Schermer, and community support has been needed to help fund trips to off-island tournaments.
“Being in Hilo is really tough for her,” Rose Dvorak said. “There’s not much competition and her main coach here is mom.
“It’s a relief that all the hard work has paid off. Every sacrifice that we did was worth it. I can’t thank the local tennis community enough.”
Sarah started playing with her mother and sister when she was 4, and a rapid ascent followed. As a seventh-grader, she defeated Kealakehe’s Sayo Tsukamoto, a player who would go on to win the Hawaii High School Athletic Association championship.
She played tennis her first two years at Waiakea, losing to Mililani’s Alyssa Tobita in the finals of the HHSAA tournament in 2011 and 2012. Since then, Dvorak says she’s had the upper hand against Tobita, including a win in straight sets last month in the finals of a United States Tennis Association regional in Honolulu.
These days, Dvorak spends hours each week hitting tennis balls with her mom at Lincoln Park. When she does play in Hilo, she’d prefer that it come against a guy who can match her power.
And with her scholarship in place she’s ready to branch out.
“I’m hoping to spend time with friends,” Dvorak said. “I can’t even remember the last time I was at the beach.”
Dvorak lists her lengthy reign atop the Hawaii junior rankings as her proudest greatest accomplishment to date — at least on the court.
“I love being an inspiration to the younger girls,” she said. “I like that more than getting a scholarship, because all the girls, they don’t think they can play Division I. They see that I can do it so they believe that they can do it. They can use me as a guide.”