It was the offseason, so Erskine Academy girls tennis coach Ryan Nored, by Maine Principals’ Association rule, couldn’t coordinate practices for his players to help them get ready for the upcoming year.

Not a problem. Nored had Ellie Hodgkin, and the sophomore was more than willing to play the role of coach by proxy.

“Her biggest value to us — and I told the whole team this over and over and over again — is that … she’s the one that drags my No. 3 and my first doubles teams to the indoor courts at Erskine or wherever they can go to play,” he said. “She’s the one that will call them on Saturday and say ‘Hey, who wants in?’ Where she improved dramatically … her teammates improved, because she’s the one that got them to hit and to hit with her.”

The work paid off. With Hodgkin leading the way at first singles for the second straight season, Erskine went from 5-7 to 9-3, making the Class B North quarterfinals. For her performance, Hodgkin is the Kennebec Journal girls tennis Player of the Year.

“My freshman year, I was a little bit nervous about being first singles on the team, considering I had just come in,” said Hodgkin, who went 8-4 during the regular season. “(But) sophomore year, knowing I’d be first singles again unless a really good freshman came up … I had to take on more of a leadership role in first singles, so that’s what I did.”

While Hodgkin encouraged her teammates — Nored even attributed Regina Harmon’s rise from not playing a varsity match as a freshman to qualifying for the singles tournament as a sophomore to Hodgkin’s influence — her coach made it a point to encourage his talented sophomore with her own game. From the moment Hodgkin arrived on the Erskine team, her coach could see she could play — particularly when it came to hitting a shot that can traditionally be tough for young players to master.

“She has an incredible backhand,” he said. “I’d like to take credit for it, but she had that when she stepped on the court.”

Hodgkin backed that up, saying that ever since she first picked up a racket, the backhand had a comfortable feel to it.

“It was definitely my favorite stroke from the start,” she said. “I think I like it because I have two hands (on the racket), and I feel more comfortable with the power on it.”

Using her skill set in competition, however, was a more difficult challenge at first. Hodgkin was tentative on the court as a freshman, and shied away from the sort of aggressive approach needed to defeat top opponents.

“She would literally play full games where she’d put the ball to her opponent’s forehand in the middle of the court and wait for them to make mistakes,” Nored said. “And while that might work at third singles level or lower, that’s not going to work at first singles level. She has to be able to move her opponent, she has to be able to hit to their weaknesses, she has to be able to force them to hit to her strengths.”

Nored saw an improvement by the singles tournament her freshman year, however, as Hodgkin began to hit to the corners and utilize more of her shots. As her sophomore year progressed, he saw her game continue to develop.

“She did improve quite dramatically from the beginning to the end of the season,” Nored said, “and it mostly had to do with her confidence. … Once we could get her to believe in herself, her game just jumped up.”

Hodgkin agreed.

“My mental game was horrible last year. At the beginning of the season this year, it was pretty bad. I would just get down on myself whenever I lost a game or a set or a match,” she said. “Over the season, I learned to play with more confidence in myself, I learned to have confidence in my strokes, and I think my game definitely got better.”

Hodgkin still has two more years at Erskine, and she’s got big plans for those seasons. After reaching the round of 32 in the singles tournament, she’s eyeing a deeper run next year, and she’s eager to see the team make it further in the Class B tournament as well.

“I really want us to get to the finals in the team competition and win,” she said. “I think we have a really good shot at winning next year, if we really work at it.”

In other words, if you’re an Erskine tennis player, expect some phone calls this offseason.

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM