BANNER ELK, N.C. - Mount Airy graduate Kelsey Hiatt is finding college athletics as difficult and yet rewarding as her classes.
Hiatt matriculated to Lees-McRae College this year after studying at Surry Community College. A high school tennis player, she walked on to the college team and made the starting six.
Kelsey played tennis all four years at Mount Airy, but only made the starting six as a senior, noted her father, Kelly Hiatt, a city police officer.
Kelly said his daughter spent a lot of time working out with his brother Marty back then and improved enough to be the Bears' fifth or sixth player in matches.
While at SCC, Kelsey didn't spend much time playing tennis or working out as she focused on her goal of becoming a kindergarten teacher.
Lees-McRae offers an elementary education program through SCC, but Kelsey said she was looking for the full college experience and left home for the first time last fall.
"I love it. I like being on campus," she said. "I'm not fully on my own - my parents help - but it's a good experience."
Like most students, she felt some homesickness, especially for mom Melissa's cooking. She said she used to borrow her mom's shoes a lot, too, so she had to grab a couple of pairs to take with her.
Part of getting that full college experience was returning to her love of tennis. Late last spring she contacted the Bobcat coach about a possible tryout.
Then-coach Paul Goode played against her personally and told her he'd like to have her on the team.
For this season, however, a new coach came in, and the Hiatts couldn't be sure that spot on the team would still be there.
She not only made the team, but Keither Turner named her the team's four seed, a higher spot than she held in high school.
"I'm doing OK," she said. "It takes some getting used to."
She is 1-2 in conference play, but has played some heavy competition outside the conference to go 0-3.
"A lot of the girls are upperclassmen," she said. They have spent multiple years as starters, while she is playing her first matches in nearly three years.
"I'm not playing bad," she assessed. "I can still keep up with them."
In her first conference match, she beat the fourth seed from Belmont-Abbey, Paige Frenener, in straight sets 6-1, 6-1.
Then in doubles play, she and Maria Andrade won 8-1 over Frenener and Bridget Franer.
In the next conference match against Coker, Kelsey dropped the first set 1-6 before battling back to take the second 6-3. In the decisive third set she fell 3-6.
"That was a really long match," she admitted. It took a lot of endurance, which is something she is still building after a couple of years away from the sport.
Her college squad runs a lot of sprints and plays more exhibition points against each other than in high school. At Mount Airy, the girls worked a lot on drills to improve their fundamentals, she recalled.
At 5-foot-4, Kelsey said, "I'm the shortest one on the team." She has to make up for that lack of reach with extra hustle.
She's also hitting the weight room twice a week as her schedule allows.
"It makes you stronger so you can hit the ball harder. That's one of the things I'm working on now."
That hard work makes her father very proud. Going in as a walk-on and earning her way in the starting six is quite an accomplishment, he said, and she deserves credit for the hard work she has put in this year.
While Kelsey is academically a junior, this is her first year as a college athlete. If she chose to stay at Lees-McRae a fifth year as a graduate student working on her master's degree, she would be eligible to play a third season for the tennis team.