The crowd, cold but fervent, fixed its eyes on the smaller, younger and fainter girl in the 5A finals No. 1 singles match in Denver.
Pine Creek freshman Nicole Kalhorn had fearlessly walked onto the biggest stage in Colorado high school tennis.
On that Friday in early May, fans covered in blankets and coats saw a player hidden behind a 15-year-old face with braces.
Most didn’t realize Kalhorn, though a freshman, was also an Intermountain Sectional champion and a section top-10 player for ages 16 and under, which includes the best junior players from Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah and Nevada.
They instead saw a 5-foot-2 girl who could be moved by a breeze — and that’s after growing a handful of inches over the summer.
Surrounding the match, the only person who looked as calm as the freshman was her coach Dave Lehman. The ninth-year coach at Pine Creek has revolved through three Kalhorns, and one thing he notices is that some things just run in the family.
“She is just a wonderful kid to coach,” said Lehman, who has known Nicole since she was a baby. “She is very coachable and just has great skills.”
The girl, who has been playing since she was 3, finished no lower than third in her past four sectionals and she had won every set in the 5A tournament headed into the finals despite being undersized and younger.
“I was just ready,” she said of the state meet.
Her success isn’t limited to her experiences though.
For instance, Nicole spent her childhood playing against sister Simone, 22, who won the 4A No. 1 singles title in 2006 before going on to play at Syracuse and is now traveling the pro tour.
Throughout the years the sisters’ bond is as intertwined as the face of Nicole’s racket, as little sister hopes to follow in her big sister’s footsteps — and make a couple of her own along the way.
“When she comes home and I play her … she kicks my butt,” Nicole said. “I can’t hit as good and I’m nowhere near as strong. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to beat her though.”
Before the match’s first serve, from states away, Simone was smiling thinking of her younger sister and how much she’s grown as a person and player … and even how much trash she can still talk.
“She likes to brag,” Simone laughs.
And then the match in Denver was under way.
Nicole quickly put to rest her seemingly out-of-nowhere status going stroke-for-stroke against Cherry Creek junior Kelli Woodman before she finally lost 6-2, 7-5.
“She is such an amazing player,” said Woodman, as Nicole was consoled by her older teammates. “Hope I get to play her again in the finals next year.”
But the agony of defeat is behind a cheerful-sounding Kalhorn. In fact, later this June she’ll be teammates with Woodman at an Intermountain Sectional tournament in Utah for 18-and-unders as she continues to learn from the elders that surround her.
“We are going to keep working on tactics,” Lehman said. “She has such great skills, so it’s mostly tactical.”
And while the pages of high school flip by, Nicole, who first picked up a racket at age 1, can always turn back to the friendships, coaches, siblings and parents who have been there guiding her along the way.
“I just love tennis so much,” she said over and over.