Nicole Knickerbocker has taken the road less traveled to her place as a senior captain on the Newport Harbor High girls' tennis team.
Knickerbocker is excelling in that role. Early in the season, she has a 16-1 record for the Sailors at No. 1 singles. She certainly showed everyone that she can play in Thursday's Battle of the Bay match against rival Corona del Mar. Knickerbocker pushed CdM senior Annika Bassey before Bassey prevailed, 6-4, but Knickerbocker bounced right back for 6-3 wins over Roxy MacKenzie and Kristina Evloeva.
Knickerbocker provided the only two set wins for the Sailors (4-2) on the day. A day prior, she swept Sage Hill with a "triple bagel," earning three 6-0 set wins.
She is just excited to be on court. Those words, "bouncing back," could describe her whole season to this point.
Last year, Knickerbocker never got the chance to play in the Battle of the Bay. She didn't play at all, aside from two matches at the start of the season. After that, she found out she was academically ineligible, minutes before the Sailors' match against Aliso Niguel and a day before the match against rival CdM.
"When I found out I couldn't play, I was heartbroken, because I love playing with the girls," Knickerbocker said. "It gives me so much joy and is so much fun, and I couldn't play. I loved cheering on the girls, but it was so difficult [not to play]. I really wished I did a little something different sophomore year."
Knickerbocker is fine talking about the situation now. Coming off a promising freshman season for the Sailors, she was home-schooled her sophomore year, so she could travel to play in ITF tournaments.
At that point, she said tennis came before school. Her grades were mostly C's. The grades got better her junior year back at Harbor, when she earned mostly A's and B's, she said.
"I try to keep my grades up," she said. "It's hard when you do a sport too, but I'm very proud of where I am academically now. I've really tried to make more of an effort to focus more on my grades, and then tennis. My freshman and sophomore year, it was kind of like tennis, and then school."
Newport Harbor coach Kristen Case said Knickerbocker was still a big part of the team as a junior, even though she couldn't play. She would offer encouragement to her teammates and still attended practice, where she would often warm up the Sailors' No. 1 singles player last season, Hannah Blower.
"She is an unbelievable team player," Case said. "She cares about everybody else more than she cares about herself … She took the adversity and turned it into a positive situation. Her maturity has been unbelievable. She understood that this was an opportunity for her to learn a good lesson and rebound in a positive manner."
Knickerbocker hopes to help the Sailors to a Sunset League title. Last year, they finished third behind league champion Los Alamitos (9-1 in league) and Fountain Valley (8-2), but the Sailors (7-3) almost forced a three-way tie for the title. They almost beat Los Al in the second go-round of league, but the Griffins prevailed on games, 9-9 (75-73).
League play starts Thursday, and Case expects the same three teams to again vie for the crown. Next for Knickerbocker after graduation could be playing college tennis. She said she would possibly like to play at an NCAA Division II school. That plan has worked for another Sailors singles alumna, Jenn Kingsley, who now plays at Sonoma State.
First, though, Knickerbocker will definitely enjoy her senior year with the Sailors. She's one of three team captains this year, along with junior Kat Smith and sophomore Amra Barton.
"It's pretty exciting," Knickerbocker said. "Last year was rough. I wanted to get out and play so bad, but I couldn't. It was fun to watch the girls, but it was hard not to be in it, you know?"
She's back in it, and she's thriving.