Samantha Saulter knew the stakes would be higher this season. The Waterville girls tennis team’s No. 2 singles player as a sophomore, Saulter was going to be moved up to the No. 1 spot this year.

She was ready.

“I was honestly really excited to play first singles,” she said. “I like the challenge, and I knew that by playing better players it would help me improve and be ready for playoffs.”

Saulter proved more than capable of handling the jump, leading the Purple Panthers to a 10-2 regular season record and the Class B North semifinals by going 12-1 at the top of the ladder. For her performance, she’s the Morning Sentinel girls tennis Player of the Year.

“Knowing I was going into No. 1 singles, I wasn’t nervous,” she said. “I had confidence in myself.”

Coach Jill Cristan knew the kind of player she would have leading the team. Even before Saulter’s two seasons on the team, Cristan had given her lessons while Saulter was learning the sport. Once Saulter made it to high school, Cristan, a former coach at Thomas College, could see that motivation wasn’t going to be an issue.

“She’s a true competitor, she goes out there to win every game,” Cristan said. “No matter what, she gives it her all, and she’s always stepping up her play.”

Saulter took it upon herself to be ready for the No. 1 job, taking lessons during the winter at Champions Fitness Center in Waterville, and by the time the season started, Cristan could see that the junior had raised her game.

“Her serve was phenomenal this year,” she said. “Her serve was the best. And she’s very patient, and that is one thing that I talk to girls about, and she’s that. She’s a smart player, she’s patient, but she will go to it and she will try things out.”

“I worked really hard to get where I am. I feel that there’s a huge difference between how I played last year to this year,” Saulter said. “Definitely, my serve is the one thing that has improved tremendously, the one thing I’ve noticed since last year.”

Saulter said she also could feel herself getting better at the mental side of the game.

“(I had) a lot more confidence on the court,” she said. “I learned to anticipate what my (opponents) are going to do and really watch where the ball might go and my goal is just to get to every single ball, go for every single ball, move my feet.”

Those skills worked in concert with a highly competitive approach, as Cristan said she could see Saulter start matches looking to bury her opponents right away.

“She’s definitely one who starts out like a horse,” she said. “If she gets out first, she’ll do great, and that’s her. She starts out strong and just keeps going.

“But she can also dig herself out of a hole, too, because she’s very patient. She knows (it’s) one point at a time. But she never really had that dilemma this year. She was strong right from the start.”

At 12-1, Saulter wasn’t challenged often, but she recalled one instance in which she was: a match with Morse’s Arielle Leeman in what ended up as a 5-0 Waterville victory.

“That was my favorite game I’ve ever played,” she said. “She was really good, we both played pretty much the same and the match went on for like three hours. It was just hard-hitting, fast-paced. I had a lot of fun playing it. I didn’t know that I could play like that, so it was impressive to me.”

With another year to go at Waterville, Saulter is aiming to climb higher. She missed the singles tournament this year due to the Waterville prom, but she’s looking to make a splash at next year’s tournament — all while continuing to boost her game.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about next year,” she said. “I’m definitely going to work harder throughout the year and play a lot more this summer. I normally don’t play off-season much, maybe once in a while. Hopefully this year I’m going to find some time to get some hits in.”

Cristan said Saulter could still improve her game for her senior year.

“If she were to go to the singles tournament, I would definitely want her to approach the net more often and cut the points shorter,” she said. “That’s where I would target. But if you’re winning, why mess with success?”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM