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Fresh off of leading the Valwood boys tennis team to the state semifinals, senior Howell Burns had plenty of options to consider but not many for tennis.
Having been accepted to Auburn University, Clemson University, Louisiana State University, the University of Mississippi and the University of Tennessee, Valwood’s No. 1 singles player signed with Mercer University Thursday morning.
“Honestly, everything,” Burns said when asked what sold him on Mercer. “I had a couple things fall through and I’d already applied to Mercer and I loved the school anyways – even without the tennis part. Then I started talking to the coach and he’s a really cool dude. I met all the players, saw the facility, took a tour and I loved it and knew I wanted to go and here we are. I got a good bit of (scholarship) money so it all worked out how it was supposed to.”
Burns, a GISA Class AAA individual state champion and Region 3-AAA champion, went 16-0 this season, never dropping a single set.
“I met Howell last March and I thought he was a football player and later on, I figured out he was a tennis player and I didn’t realize how good of a tennis player he was until I started hearing stories about him from the team last year,” Valwood tennis coach Brian Breland said. “When I actually got to coach him, I learned not only how great of a tennis player he is, but how great a kid and person he is. I got to know him on all levels.
“There were some points where he was about to give up in terms of his recruiting and Mercer came along right at the last second and his mom told me after the coach watched him for about 10 minutes, he knew he could play. I can’t say how proud I am of him and how much the success we had this year is in part because of him and his leadership.”
Having picked up a racket for the first time at the age of 5, Burns called the goal of playing college tennis something he’s had tunnel vision on the whole time.
“I never thought of anything else,” Burns said. “I always knew I was going to play in college in the back of my head. I just kept pushing it through. It’s tough in Valdosta. Finding people to hit with sometimes can be a struggle. VSU players help me out a lot, but this just happened. God’s plan, I guess.”
“I’ve had several coaches…a lot of coaches that have helped me a lot through the years at different stages,” Burns said. “Valwood, I’ve played at the high school level since my eighth grade year. We’ve had a couple coaches come through, but all of them have been great. Coach Breland, this year, couldn’t have been any better. The coaches I had in Thomasville, John Hansen at Valdosta State, he helped me a lot…some of their players – Xavi Pineda helped me a lot, Keith Childree at McKey Park; everyone’s done a great job and I wouldn’t be here without them.”
On the court, Burns considers himself a baseliner – a player that prefers to stay back and dictate points from the baseline. Self-described as “not a super tall guy,” Burns admits he doesn’t serve and volley much.
“I’m just a grinder. I go after it every single point,” Burns said. “Coach Hansen always said, ‘All you’ve got to do is win the last point.’ I always go off that (mindset).'”
When asked what he’d like to improve on at the next level, Burns feels he needs to be more comfortable coming to the net to finish points and improve his consistency there.
He’ll be joining a Mercer program that finished 7-15 and 1-6 in Southern Conference play this season under head coach Eric Hayes. Having completed a stellar campaign at Valwood, Burns expects to start near the bottom of the lineup but is optimistic he’ll get better at the next level.
“I feel like I’ll explode in an environment like a Division I program at Mercer,” Burns said. “Being on a team with good players, good coaching and getting lots of practice all the time, I think my game will explode just being pushed by those guys around me.”
Shane Thomas is the sports editor at the Valdosta Daily Times.