Nearly four years after he finished a star-studded tennis career at Peninsula High School, Lance Wilhelm has only gotten faster, stronger and better.
Wilhelm’s career at Peninsula was the stuff of legend: He didn’t lose a single league match during his four seasons, was one of the U.S. Tennis Association’s top-ranked junior players in the state and captured the Class 3A singles championship as a senior in 2009.
He hasn’t slowed down since he arrived at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. He played in the No. 1 singles slot for the Falcons in his first match as a freshman, and he has since grown into the team captain and a nationally ranked NCAA Division I player.
Wilhelm will graduate from the academy in May, and he said his time there has been positive. The highly structured and disciplined military environment has a lot to do with it, he said.
“It’s definitely allowed me to grow up a lot,” Wilhelm said. “It’s given me the opportunity to become who I am today.”
From the beginning, Wilhelm has been a force at Air Force. He was named the team’s Most Valuable Player as a freshman, when he posted a 20-14 singles record and an 11-9 mark in doubles. In his opening match, he cruised to a 6-3, 6-4 win over Denver’s Yannick Weihs, who finished the season as the fifth-ranked player in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s Mountain Region.
Air Force coach Dan Oosterhous, who played for the Falcons in the early 1990s, said Wilhelm was thrown into the proverbial fire as a freshman when the team’s top senior didn’t play. He beat out several sophomores and juniors to earn the No. 1 singles role.
“He was a skinny little guy, just not even developed at all,” Oosterhous said. “He was totally raw, but he had a big serve and a big forehand.”
Wilhelm’s first-year results signaled a bright future, his coach said.
“That was really unusual to see a freshman come in and take over that leadership role right away,” Oosterhous said. “We knew then that we had three more good years ahead of us with him.”
Wilhelm was again named team MVP as a sophomore, and he earned his first victory over a nationally ranked player, Arthur Surreaux of New Mexico State.
He kept growing as a junior, when he earned a third-straight team MVP title. He won 22 singles matches, 17 more in doubles and advanced to the round of 32 at the USTA/ITA Mountain Region tournament.
He parlayed that into a semifinal spot at last October’s regional tourney, the furthest any Air Force player had advanced in seven seasons.
After he started his final spring season with a 7-1 record, he earned another distinction in mid-February when he moved into the ITA’s national rankings for the first time at No. 85.
“I stepped over a mental hurdle in the fall and started playing very calm and composed on the court,” Wilhelm said. “To get up on the published list ... you have to beat some people who are nationally ranked.”
“That was a huge deal,” Oosterhous said.
The Falcons have four underclassmen on their 2012-13 roster, and Wilhelm sets an example for them, Oosterhous said.
That’s not only true in athletics but academics as well. Wilhelm finished 13th in his class at Peninsula High, and he’ll graduate from the academy with a degree in physics. He has been assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to work as a physicist in a military research lab.
“He’s not a very vocal leader, but his leadership comes out in how he carries himself on the court,” Oosterhous said. “He’s a guy the whole team can count on. ... That’s a neat thing for the underclassmen to see. He’s a guy that has done pretty much everything well here.”
Wilhelm said Oosterhous, a lieutenant colonel, has been a role model in terms of being an Air Force officer.
“All of us respect him tremendously,” Wilhelm said. “We’ve been fortunate to have him, because he’s been an active part of the team and is truly invested into making us one of the top teams in the conference.”
Wilhelm’s tennis roots stretch back not only to his days at Peninsula with coach Cherie Ausboe but with the Tacoma Lawn Tennis Club and coaches Mark Hanson and Gil Rigell. Many of his high-school opponents were club opponents, too.
“It was kind of neat to wear your school’s name going into a big tournament against all your buddies,” Wilhelm said. “I think it was cool to represent my school, and I think that’s what I relish most about my time.”Sports Editor Neil Pierson can be reached at 253-358-4155 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @gateway_neil.