By Conor Walsh
---- — Brittany Collens earned it, there’s no denying that.
After deciding to focus much of her adolescence to tennis, the senior at Manchester Essex went all in, leaving the Hornets’ program after her freshman year to devote endless hours to her training at the Manchester Athletic Club.
That all paid off for Collens yesterday when, surrounded by friends, mentors and family in the Manchester Essex gym, she officially signed her letter of intent to join the New Mexico State tennis program next fall.
“I’m so excited,” Collens said. “I love it there. It’s a huge school and I’ve always wanted to go to a huge school. The sports facilities are amazing, they’re all new. I was amazed when I went out there with how new and how nice the tennis center was.
“It has the exact qualities I was looking for in a school.”
Collens grew up as a girl who, in her own words, “was into all sports.”
When she was in middle school, though, she decided that tennis was going to be her thing, and it was clear from the beginning that that was a good decision.
While training with coaches Francisco Montoya and Alex Howard at the MAC Tennis Academy, Collens joined the perennially powerful Hornets’ program as a seventh-grader.
As the No. 1.
After tearing through opponents for three years with the Hornets, however, Collens’ aspirations forced her to leave the program.
To adhere to MIAA rules, Collens was unable to train with her Academy during the Hornets’ season, a rule that ultimately forced her departure.
From there on, Collens’ life went down a path atypical to that of a normal high school student.
As a member of an Academy that requires such a commitment that most members must be home-schooled, Collens chose to continue at Manchester Essex.
Only, most days, she’d miss two or more classes to allow her to get to the MAC for training, usually from noon to 7 p.m. each day.
But despite teaching herself much of her coursework on top of the rigors of her tennis training, she was able to maintain an A/B average.
“I played from seventh grade to ninth grade,” Collens said, “and then Francisco told me, ‘If you want to go Division 1, I need you here at the MAC with my academy every day for four-to-five hours.”
Ultimately, her coach’s advice paid off. Collens expanded her reach from regional tournaments to national tournaments, and in December 2011 she traveled to Florida for a high-exposure tournament featuring many top international amateurs.
One of those amateurs was Collens’ first opponent in that tournament, a top-ranked player from Puerto Rico. Her upset win in that match paved the way to her ultimate commitment to New Mexico State, as the coaching staff -- which was originally studying Collens’ opponent -- followed her through the rest of the tournament.
After Collens and her father, Josiah, went through constant contact and emails with the New Mexico State staff and other suitors -- including Siena, Southern Illinois, UConn and St. Bonaventure -- the Lobos were there from the start, and were the answer in the end.
“I was really nervous in that first round because I saw the New Mexico State coaches and I was playing the top girl in the tournament,” Collens explained. “But I ended up winning the tournament, and afterwards they talked to my Dad and we’d been exchanging emails ever since, and I kind of knew that was my top choice since then.”
Yesterday’s commitment was the end of a long road for Collens.
Before she sets off on the next step of her tennis career, though, she’ll get a chance to take a step back when she rejoins the Hornets this spring for her senior season.
Not good news for the rest of the Cape Ann League.
And while, at the end of it all, Collens admits there are things that she’ll miss about Manchester while living more than 2,000 miles away in Albuquerque, there’s little doubt that she’s thrilled to have the opportunity.
“I’m very independent,” Collens said. “But I’m going to miss my family so much. My Dad’s moving to California, so he’ll be able to see most of my matches, but I’m so close with my Mom.
With an off-campus apartment with a pool and Albuquerque’s beautiful weather, though, Collens has little concern about convincing her mother to visit.
“It’ll be interesting,” she said with a laugh, “but I’ll make sure she comes down a couple times.”