By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Grace D’Angelo and Kelly Soares are co-captains on the Hilo girls tennis team, providing value as productive players, but on a bigger scale offering the type of leadership that makes everyone better.
D’Angelo and Amy Chen have been playing doubles together for two years. The seniors have never advanced past the Big Island Interscholastic Federation championships.
It would be nice if they qualified for the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament in their last attempt, especially because it will be held at Mauna Lani.
But when asked her goal, D’Angelo talked team first.
“I’d love for everyone on our team to make it to states,” she said. “My goal is for everyone to get as far as they can. My partner and I will try to make states. I’m pretty confident that we can. Even when I miss, I can always depend on Amy to pick me back up again. She’s a very positive person. We make a good team, emotionally and with our skills.
“Being a team co-captain is very important to me. I’m happy I was elected. I like taking the responsibility of being one of the leaders. It’s nice to speak for everyone to the coaches and act as a buffer. Tennis has singles and doubles, but it’s a close-knit team and we rely on each other for support.”
D’Angelo, Chen and Kat Hong are experienced seniors, each coming out for tennis as freshmen. They not only provide depth, along with Soares, a junior, and freshmen Emily Soares and Didi Wong, but also lineup options.
Hilo coach Wayne Yamada is still contemplating how he’ll set his singles and doubles order for the BIIF team championships, which will be held Saturday, April 13 at Holua. At least, he knows he’ll get a good effort from his three valued seniors.
“Kat has worked hard and has come a long way,” he said. “She’s controlled her ground strokes and emotions and because of that has improved her game a lot.
“Grace and Amy complement each other. Amy is a baseliner and Grace is all-around and stronger at the net. To see their progress from freshmen to now, I’m really pleased. They’ve all come along nicely.
“None of the seniors have made it to states. Our goal is to get in two singles and two doubles teams.”
The Vikings have a solid foundation in Emily Soares and Wong. They’ve got a lot of time to grow and get better. Yamada’s only regret is that two-time BIIF singles champion Sarah Dvorak isn’t playing in her junior season.
“We would all love to see Sarah there. There’s not much competition,” he said. “To be the best, you have to beat the best and she’s one of the best on the island, mentally and physically.
“Emily has a nice all-around game. She hits what we call in tennis a heavy ball. She’s very difficult to play against. It’s really hard to make clean contact against her. Didi’s mental game stands out. She doesn’t give anybody anything. She grinds it out and doesn’t make unforced errors. To beat her, you have to grind it out with her.”
For fun, D’Angelo plays the flute and takes to adventure. She was in the county band but had to drop out due to time concerns. She also plays roller derby, competing on a junior team (ages 11 to 17) of the Big Island Babes.
They wear helmets and hitting someone in the chops with an elbow isn’t allowed. The benefit of roller derby is learning all the tidbits of leadership. She picked up the sport about two years ago.
“There’s a good team element in roller derby,” she said. “You have to pay attention and work together as a group. You have to stay in a pack.”
The musical side of her is no surprise. D’Angelo’s maternal grandfather was a band leader in California and her parents, Joseph and Joanne, played band in high school. Her dad is a doctor at Island Pediatrics and her mom is a nurse.
D’Angelo is carrying a 3.9 grade-point average and is looking to major in biology. She wants to become a genetics counselor, a job that would deal with pregnant women with genetic tests for any predisposition.
“I took a vigorous AP (advanced placement) biology class as a junior and that inspired me,” she said. “My teacher suggested it might make a good career choice. You have to help people through their emotional problems because you may deliver bad news.”
It’s always nice to have a shoulder to lean in all moments in life.
Last season at the BIIF championships, D’Angelo and Chen were eliminated by teammates Kelly Soares and Genevieve Flaspohler.
It was a bittersweet moment. But despite not punching a ticket to states, D’Angelo was reminded about the team concept and why doubles fits her best.
“I like the support in doubles,” she said. “I’ve played singles once in a tournament. It’s nicer to have a friend to talk with and rely on her. If you feel down, you can encourage each other to bring each other back.”
Kelly Soares has been involved with the school’s Key Club since she was a freshman. They help with community projects through the Kiwanis club. She served as the lieutenant governor and spent a lot of her free time helping others.
“I found a passion for serving the community,” she said. “I just loved having the feeling of helping others and seeing someone smile and say, ‘Thank you.’ It really motivated me.
“What I learned from my experience was the ability to lead and help my teammates along. And to give them positive encouragement.”
Unlike D’Angelo, who jokes that she’s the first generation in her family to play tennis, the Soares family all play the sport.
Carl Soares, a teacher at Keaau middle school, and Ruby, an accountant at Royal Hawaiian Orchids, make it a family affair. And it seems the bulk of the talent trickled down to the family’s youngest.
Kelly acknowledged that when she plays Emily the younger sibling is usually the winner. It’s a lesson of humility, but one Kelly accepts with grace. In fact, it’s a practice of positive encouragement.
“I accept the fact that she’s more competitive, and I want to help her as much as I can,” Soares said. “I’m proud of her and I’m always there to encourage her when she gets down. She’s dedicated to tennis. She’ll get up in the morning and run. She’s motivated to be in shape and become the best tennis player she can be.
“The season is going good. From Day 1 at practice, the team has improved and grown physically and mentally. As a team, we’re doing well, and I’m proud of all of them.”