April 7, 2006

Small Ball: Luxton to Play Tennis as Well

April 7, 2006

By Jason Kaneshiro
Star Bulletin

What Michelle Luxton thought was a playful challenge from her volleyball coach turned into an opportunity to test herself on another type of court.

Luxton and Santa Clara coach Jon Wallace had often kidded each other about meeting up for a tennis match during her freshman season with the Broncos. So when Wallace raised the subject again after an offseason workout, she played along.

"He came up to me and was like, 'Luxton, do you want to play tennis?' " the Punahou graduate recalled. "So I was like, 'Yeah, let's go out on the court. We can play right now.' And he said, 'No, I mean do you want to play on the team?'"

Turned out the Santa Clara tennis team was short on numbers this spring and Wallace had mentioned Luxton's tennis background to coach Damon Coupe. Not long after that, Luxton officially became a two-sport athlete for the Broncos.

Since being added to the tennis team's roster, Luxton has spent the last month getting comfortable swinging a racket again after not playing competitive tennis since her sophomore year of high school.

"When the opportunity came up I was really excited and I just really wanted to give it a shot," said Luxton, who spent much of the winter break playing tennis with her family.

The Pacific Heights resident played in junior tennis tournaments growing up and was a member of the Punahou squad as a high school freshman. But her focus shifted soon after trying out for the Buffanblu volleyball team during her sophomore year "just as something to do."

"I needed more P.E. credits and a lot of my friends were doing it and I just fell in love with it," she said.

By the time she graduated last summer, the 5-foot-10 middle blocker had helped Punahou to back-to-back state championships and earned All-State honorable mention honors as a senior.

She then followed older sister Kristen to Santa Clara and walked on to the volleyball team. Both Kristen, a senior co-captain, and Michelle contributed off the bench for the Broncos in a magical season that ended with the program's first trip to the final four.

The Broncos lost to Nebraska in the national semifinals in San Antonio last December to finish 27-5, tying the best record in school history.

"It was a complete surprise," Michelle Luxton said of the Broncos' run.

"I'd watched my sister play in the previous years and I'd watched them go into the tournament and face some really tough losses in the first and second rounds. ... (Going to the final four) meant so much because they had gone through those rough periods before."

Michelle was in the midst of preparing for next season when the chance to try out for the tennis team arose.

Coupe had been struggling to find healthy players and the Broncos had to forfeit a road match when injuries left them without enough players to fill out a lineup.

Luxton found out soon after that the tennis team needed players this spring, so she joined the squad.

On Wallace's suggestion, Coupe quizzed Luxton on her tennis background in an impromptu interview and set up a tryout the following day.

"I could see through the rust," Coupe said. "I could see that there was some ability there and some talent. I told her I was OK with (adding her to the team) but I was definitely going to have to ask the team what they thought because we'd already begun our season."

Said Wallace: "Michelle's one of those people who's never tired, has a ton of energy. So I thought that she could handle it."

Luxton already knew several of the players from her classes and didn't take long to mesh with the squad.

"The girls were really accepting and supportive of everything so that made it a lot easier," she said.

Getting back into form on the court has taken a little longer. As Luxton refines her swing, she's also learning the strategic nuances of college-level tennis, her action limited so far to a few exhibition matches.

"I feel like I'm just coming around right now... because to be match-tough is completely different than just having the skills," she said. "Tennis is, I would say, 80 percent mental, 20 percent physical. Getting the 80 percent back has been the hardest part so far; just remembering how to set up the points, and remembering how to stay strong through the match."

"She's made major improvements since she's been on the team," Coupe said. "Even for kids coming out of junior tennis it's a huge jump for them, and for someone that was playing part-time it's a major adjustment."

Both Coupe and Wallace noted Luxton's speed and athletic ability as her strengths, and worked out an arrangement on how she'll split her time between sports.

Luxton does individual workouts for volleyball twice a week, but practices and does her conditioning with the tennis team. Things could get more complicated in the fall when both sports are in season.

Wallace said Luxton will be in the mix for the Broncos' defensive specialist job as she enters her second year with the volleyball team.

"She has a good shot," he said. "She's very gifted, it's just a matter of being more consistent passing-wise."

As far as the possible tennis match with his player?

"She's got a little bit of a jump start, but I will not back down," Wallace said with a laugh. "Mark my words."