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It took several heart-to-heart talks between Evanston doubles partners Emily Ho and Becky Arden to convince each other that it was worth the risk in a COVID-19 scenario to come back and play high school badminton as seniors.
Now Ho has one more chance to put it all on the line after qualifying for the Illinois High School Association state finals in singles.
COVID-19 wiped out the entire season last spring, but Ho’s decision to keep playing paid dividends after she claimed fourth place in singles and led ETHS to a 3rd place finish in the team standings last Friday at the Buffalo Grove Sectional tournament.
The state finals will provide a conclusion to a truncated season — Ho has only played a total of 13 matches, including victories in 3 of 5 sectional matches — and it’s a season that might not have been played, until the IHSA finally decided to move the calendar up from the traditional spring season.
Singles competition will be held on Wednesday at Downers Grove South High School, with the doubles bracket set for Thursday. First-round pairings have not yet been released by the IHSA.
Ho’s singles success helped the Wildkits keep up a tradition for excellence that is only matched at ETHS by the prowess of the girls track program. Evanston has qualified players in either singles or doubles for State every year dating back to at least 1985, although the Kits haven’t scored a top 10 finish in the team standings since placing 7th in 2004 under head coach Karilyn Joyce.
Joyce didn’t know what to expect in such a limited season this time around, but said she wasn’t surprised that Ho emerged as the team’s top player.
“She’s a very good player and she would have been a state qualifier last year. But I didn’t even try to get her a seed at the sectional because we’d only played what, six matches, before the sectional,” Joyce said. “I really didn’t know how any of our girls would stack up at the sectional. I’m just happy that Emily gets this chance for her senior year.”
Ho opened sectional play with a triumph over a player from Chicago Taft, then defeated Anagha Shreesha of Vernon Hills twice — 21-16, 21-17 and 21-16, 21-11 — to keep her season alive. She suffered a loss to Libertyville’s Alexandra Berns (20-22, 21-15, 12-21) in the third round and dropped the third place match to Ellen Corr of Warren by an 18-21, 21-12, 14-21 margin.
Her efforts, combined with Arden in singles and the doubles teams of juniors Ella Berkowitz/Alex Bunas and Sophie Vanderwalker/Annie Liu, powered Evanston to 3rd in the team sectional standings with 6.5 points. Buffalo Grove and Libertyville tied for the team title with 13 apiece in the 6-team field.
Ho, who also trains and plays in the off-season, worked her way into the varsity lineup at the No. 6 spot in both singles and doubles as a sophomore. But the coronavirus wiped out the season after the first week of practice last spring, and like high school athletes in all sports, she had to shake off the rust when the OK was given to resume competition this year.
First she had to decide whether she wanted to play at all.
“If we didn’t have a season this year, I’d definitely be sad,” said the Evanston senior. “Things were pretty scary in terms of COVID, though. I did consider not playing, because my grandparents live with me and I didn’t want to put them at risk. I talked it over with my Mom and my doubles partner (Arden). We were both on the fence, but we finally decided we’d do it this season.
“I’m very, very gratified that we have a season because I got a chance to bond with the (current) juniors and seniors. Everyone on our team is really sweet. I really like the community there is in badminton.
“We didn’t play in any tournaments (the schedule was limited to Central Suburban League opponents) so it was hard to gauge where we stood for the sectional. It kinda felt like we were walking in blind in terms of knowing everyone’s skill level. But I knew my own skill level, and I just tried to play my best. I had a feeling I could make it to State. I believed in myself.”
Ho admitted that “I lost a lot of my shotmaking skills” during the shutdown. So she focused even more on conditioning, a strategy that paid off when she had to play 5 matches in one long day at the sectional.
“I still worked out during the shutdown. I did a lot of running because I felt I needed a level of activity for my mental and physical health,” she said. “I also did some work with the weights once we knew there was a potential to have a season.
“I think the conditioning helps because it comes down to not putting so much pressure on myself. I can be more focused on making shots because I know I have the conditioning already. I think one of my strengths is my ability to move quickly on the court, and I definitely played my best this year at the sectional.”
Ho said confidence — or lack of it — is still sometimes an issue when she steps on the court.
“Sometimes I struggle with the stress, instead of just going out there and playing,” she explained. “Back to my sophomore year I started trying to just focus on playing one point at a time, because getting over those mental barriers is definitely one of the hardest things about this.
“At State, I just want to be in a good mindset and do the best I can. I don’t want to leave that gym wishing I’d done better. I want to give it a good shot.”