Rachel Willing remembers sitting in the stands watching her big brother Collin play tennis for Valparaiso.
"I went to some of his matches and just saw how passionate he was about the game," Rachel said. "I wanted to follow in his footsteps and take that passion to the court."
Willing first picked up a racket in eighth grade. Now a junior, she is 24-5 in two prep seasons of singles play for the Times No. 1 Vikings, showing that same passion she admired in her brother.
"She's also a very determined player, willing to work hard for each point," Valparaiso girls coach Tim Shideler said. "She's not in a hurry. She's a very steady player. She looks forward to whatever task you give her."
She was 14-2 at No. 3 singles as a sophomore. This season, she lost to Highland's Vany Madrigal at No. 1 singles, went 8-1 at No. 2 — suffering her lone loss Monday against Munster and is 2-1 at No. 3.
Injuries and illnesses with twin sisters Kelly and Caitlin Kennedy — the team's No. 1 and No. 2 singles players — have forced several lineup changes this season. Willing has been a willing participant.
"Whatever is best for the team, I'm willing to be there," Willing said. "I don't mind not knowing where I will play. I just give it my all."
Willing worked with her brother as she learned the game over the past several seasons. The pair even taught lessons together through the parks department.
"I think it was very helpful to her to have him as a mentor," Shideler said of Collin Willing, who played varsity singles his senior season. "She's gained a lot of knowledge."
A recent change of strategy has also helped her develop those skills. A season ago, she was more inclined to just lob the ball back and wait for a opponent's error. Playing tougher competition at No. 1 and No. 2 made Willing realize she needed to alter her style.
"I don't like playing the other player's game," she said. "I might hit a few lobs, then I'll mix in a fast shot just to throw them off.
"I want to control the tempo."
That could be the key in today's first-round match at the Portage Sectional with No. 3 Chesterton, who defeated the Vikings 3-2 in the regular season. J.J. Lee staved off a match point to edge Willing 5-7, 7-6 (7-4), 6-1 at No. 3.
Once again, No. 3 could be the game-clinching point of the match — and Willing appears ready for the challenge.
"I'm just going to go out with a clear mind," Willing said. "I'm not going to psych myself out. I'll just play it a point at a time. Hopefully it will work out."