Milah Ryland hasn't had a racket in her hands since her toddler days.
She didn't start playing the game until the seventh grade, much later than most of her tennis-playing peers. But that hasn't stopped the Clovis East High junior from developing into one of the Central Section's best.
Ryland took over as the Timberwolves' top singles player in the preseason and got better and better over the course of a fall season that saw her capture the Tri-River Athletic Conference singles title and earn the third seed for the section individual tournament.
The Bee's Girls Tennis Player of the Year capped a 22-9 season with a 6-0, retired victory over Monache's fourth-seeded Electa Wright in the third-place match after losing to eventual champion Anastasia Drulias of Garces 7-5, 6-1 in the semifinals.
It was a marked improvement from Ryland's sophomore year, when she was seeded 13th for the section individual tournament and ousted in the round of 16 to finish a 7-6 campaign interrupted by a midseason shoulder injury.
"I'm just working to bridge the gap between me and the players who have five, six years experience on me," Ryland said. "Obviously, I'd have liked to win Valley, but compared to last year, I improved. Overall, I did pretty well."
Clovis East coach Janine Sodersten said Ryland is one of the most physically gifted athletes playing tennis in the section, which has allowed her to pick up the game quickly along with a willingness to develop an overall game rather than rely on power shots alone.
"She hits the ball a ton, but one obstacle she's had to overcome was keeping the ball in play," Sodersten said. "She had to realize there's more to the game than just hitting the ball hard, because girls will return it every single time. So she changed and added whole different elements to her game, and you could see her improve more and more."
Ryland worked her on placement of shots, hitting with back spin and top spin and changing speeds.
She really began to blossom during the second half of TRAC play, avenging a 7-5, 6-3 loss to Clovis North's Elizabeth Schulz with a 6-3, 6-4 victory in their second matchup.
Ryland sailed through the North Area qualifier with a pair of 6-0, 6-0 wins, downed sixth-seeded Kate Hoppe of Edison 6-2, 6-1 in the individual singles tournament and even pushed eventual singles runner-up Arianna Tilbury of Stockdale in a 6-2, 7-5, 10-7 loss during Clovis East's team match in the Division I semifinals.
"I was just so set on one style of play," said Ryland, who spent eight years as a gymnast and played some soccer before turning her focus to tennis. "I had to realize that if I wanted to be successful, I had to learn how to not only play how I want to play, but how I have to play to win.
"I'm naturally a big hitter. I want to hit the ball hard. I had to learn to play with more variety. It's a long process, but I could definitely see a big difference. Not only in the way I felt, but in the results."
Player of the Year Milah Ryland
School: Clovis East
Qualifications: Living up to her seeding, Ryland placed third in the Central Section individual singles tournament with a 6-0, retired victory over fourth-seeded Electa Wright of Monache. The Tri-River Athletic Conference champion and MVP went 22-9 overall in singles a year after going 7-6 and losing in the round of 16 at the section individual tournament.
Coach says: "She started the season with some confidence but really gained a lot more as the season progressed, and she learned there were more aspects to the game than hitting hard. Placement and patience were two important parts of her game that really brought it all together at the end of the season." -- Clovis East's Janine Sodersten
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6103, firstname.lastname@example.org or @NickG_FB on Twitter.