WEAVERVILLE – Some children find their favorite sport, instrument or activity by the age of 5. For others, like Ella Shields, it takes a bit longer.
“When she was younger, Ella tried her hand at soccer, basketball, ballet and gymnastics,” recalls Ella’s mother Heidi Shields. “She tried a lot of things.
But once young Ella picked up a tennis racquet from North Buncombe Middle School, she was done splashing around.
“She was going to train and play whenever she could take a turn; she’s always excited to play, ”said Ella’s mom. “We’ve never seen her head for tennis unhappy.”
Now in her final year, Ella’s passion for her favorite sport is paying off. Ranked 41st in the USTA rankings of 18 under state – and 21st among varsity rookies in her class – she recently signed up to play varsity tennis for Division III Millsaps (Jackson, Mississippi).
“I chose Millsaps because of the academic opportunities and because it’s a very small school, so I’m going to get to know everyone on campus,” she said. “They’re usually at the top of their conference, and right now they’re undefeated this season.”
The path from college to a scholarship included two solid years at North Buncombe High, followed by an extremely difficult decision.
In the end, she chose to quit playing for the Black Hawks so that she could train year round with personal trainer Jean David.
“It was difficult because I have a lot of friends on the team and I loved competing for my sport,” said Ella. “But I finally decided that I wanted to focus on improving my game as much as possible.”
She plays three to four days a week at the Cheshire Racquet Club in Black Mountain and participates in the USTA regional tournaments twice a month.
A player on all terrains with an aggressive serve, she works on her net play and strategy.
David is working on improving young Shields’ strength as well as her mental game, and he’s impressed with her growth over the 2.5 years she’s trained with him.
“She is able to follow detailed instructions and apply them,” said David. “She has a very calm demeanor, which allows her to process and apply what she is learning. She has passed her age in the ability to learn without getting too emotional.
“She is only at the nascent stage of who she can become as a player,” added David. “She’s gotten a lot stronger and she’s going to college which will help her grow even more as a player.”
Ella Shields’ goals extend beyond the tennis court. At Millsaps, she hopes to specialize in biochemistry and later study medicine so that she can become a doctor.
As for tennis, she plans to play as many tournaments as possible this summer to gain experience competing against other college players.
And the fact that she fell in love with tennis a little later than many of her peers may actually work to her advantage.
“I know a lot of players start at such a young age that by the time they get to college they kind of have a plateau in their game,” she said. “But I still have room to improve.”
That’s what she plans to do this summer and beyond.