Equipped with a strong forehand shot and baseline game, Hunter Nelson has dueled against some of the nation’s best tennis players on some big stages.
Playing in national and regional tournaments, including high-profile events in Michigan and Arizona, helped prepare Hunter for one of the best freshman seasons in recent memory. The Lincoln East standout has 37 wins in singles competition. He has zero losses. He continues to gain confidence.
And yet, there is something about this week that is sure to stir up the stomach butterflies. It’s state tournament time, and in less than three short months, Hunter has gone from the new kid on the high school scene to the player to beat at Koch Family Tennis Center.
“For national tournaments, you don’t have a crowd and stuff like this, so there’s more pressure (now),” Hunter said. “Especially for being the one seed, you have more to lose.
“I’m a little nervous, but I’m also excited and confident.”
If Hunter needs advice on how to handle state, he can turn to coach Chris Stock, or his teammates, including senior Kirby Le, who won a state runner-up medal at No. 1 singles last year.
Or just turn to dad.
Like father, like son
Sam Hunter knows tennis, and he knows what it means to represent Spartan blue at a high level. He was a key cog on four state championship teams at Lincoln East from 1991-95, which included a No. 2 singles state crown as a sophomore and a No. 1 doubles title as a junior.
More than two decades later, it’s Hunter’s turn to lead the East charge. The Spartans not only make up one of the top tennis programs in the state, but they’re also favorites to win it all Thursday and Friday.
“It’s pretty special,” Sam said of the father side of it. “I’ve kept in contact with my old high school coach (Jeff Hoham), so he knows a lot about Hunter.”
The state is getting to know Hunter, too.
After earning the No. 1 spot over Le – one could make the case that Le is the state’s second-best player – Hunter began his season with a rally victory over Omaha Westside’s Aaron Shekfski.
“I was really pressured, but then I pulled the match out and felt comfortable from there on out,” Hunter said.
At home with tennis
There’s no place more comfortable than a tennis court for the Nelson family.
Sam is the tennis pro at Woods Tennis Center. Before that, he was at Hillcrest Country Club for 15 years. He grew up a block away from Woods Park.
When Hunter was about 4, he was swinging tennis racquets at soccer balls in the driveway. Dad thought it was a good way to work on eye-hand coordination early. Hunter began taking lessons at Hillcrest a year later.
Feeling stronger mentally and physically, Hunter’s game has flourished over the past 18 months on the UTSA circuit. He was a doubles champion in Level 3 tournaments in Oklahoma and Omaha. He was second in a Levels 2 national tournament in Michigan, and fourth in singles at a national event in Texas.
The 14-year-old has won Level 5 tournaments while competing in the 16s and 18s divisions.
Nelson is currently ranked No. 40 in the country for his age division in doubles and is 75th in singles. He’s a top-five player in the six-state Missouri Valley region.
Sam has been there every step – and nearly every highway mile – of the way. They like to talk a lot about the mental game and strategy. Just last year, Sam, dealing with a hernia injury, drove 16 hours to get Hunter to a tournament in Tucson, Arizona.
“He supports me a lot and he doesn’t push me to do too much or anything, to be honest,” Hunter said. “He’s just there to support me on the journey.”
It’s been a fun journey for Sam, too.
“It’s been very gratifying,” Dad said. “Sometimes I just got to remind myself that you don’t get those times back.”
Chance at history
Sam played on some dominant Lincoln East teams in the 1990s when the Spartans won eight straight Class A titles. The 2022 Spartans, however, have a chance to do something no Class A team has done, and that’s go an entire season without dropping a match.
Congratulations to East Boys Varsity Tennis!! Your 2022 Heartland Athletic Conference CHAMPIONS!!!! ????
1 Singles Hunter Nelson ????
1 Doubles Kirby Le / Caden Haar ????
2 Singles Samarth Sajeesh ????
2 Doubles Joe Bucknell / Kayden Le ????
An Amazing Day Spartans ????! pic.twitter.com/vHa0v8vrzu
— EastHighSpartans (@EastSpartans) October 8, 2022
Nelson is 37-0 at No. 1 singles and fellow freshman Samarth Sajees is 37-0 at No. 2 singles. Kirby Le and Caden Haar are 41-0 at No. 1 doubles, and Joseph Bucknell and Kayden Le are 39-0 at No. 2 doubles.
“It’s very impressive especially with how young they are,” Sam said. “It speaks to (Coach Stock) to keep them focused, but also (how they are) respectful to their opponents. They’ve been good winners from what I’ve seen, too.”
Hunter said he doesn’t know too much about his father’s high school days other than he was very good and had a great backhand. Just a freshman, Hunter said he’s taking things one season at a time. Right now, he’s determined to lead East to a team title while also looking for another story to share with his father.
“It’s pretty cool,” Hunter said of following in Sam’s footsteps. “I’m hoping I do as well as him at state.”