For all of Lauren Han's accomplishments in junior club tennis, up until last year, her best moments had come in relative obscurity.
But the Clackamas junior got her first taste of playing an important match before a big crowd last season, and came through like a champ. Han became the school's first girls state champion by beating Westview's Neena Feldman 6-3, 6-4 in the 6A final.
“It was definitely different than regular tournaments because usually nobody's really watching,” Han said. “But once you get in the zone, you kind of forget about the crowd.
“It's definitely a different experience, and I'm glad I got it. Regular tournaments, it's just not like that at all. I was glad to see how I coped under pressure.”
Under normal circumstances, Han would have had the chance to play on a big stage as a freshman, but the COVID-shortened season of 2021 did not have a state tournament.
What she did last year only verified the high expectations placed on Han, ranked No. 3 in the Northwest and No. 67 in the nation in 18-and-under by the US Tennis Association. It even impressed her longtime coach at Multnomah Athletic Club, Marco Pineda.
“At state, I think she just executed the game plan perfectly,” Pineda said. “It was really awesome to watch. You could just see the confidence and her excitement. After the match was done, I've never seen her that happy.
“That was the first time I genuinely felt like, wow, she really bought into what we're working on, and it paid off. She was really happy with that, and it really boosted her confidence moving forward.”
Han took a big step toward her future in November when she committed to Dartmouth. In January, she solidified herself as the 6A favorite when she beat her two primary in-state rivals to win a Level 3 tournament in Seattle.
Han defeated Sprague senior Libby Blair 7-6 (7-5), 6-2 in the semifinals and Wildcats senior Feldman 7-6, (8-6), 6-2 in the final in Seattle. It mirrored her finish at state last year, when she beat both players back-to-back in straight sets.
“It was a tournament that I came back from not playing for a while, so it was good to finally get my rhythm back,” Han said.
Feldman and Blair – ranked No. 35 and No. 111 in 18-and-under, respectively – are the main threats to Han, according to Pineda.
“The field's pretty small,” Pineda said. “It's going to be very similar to last year. I don't think the seeding is going to change. Lauren is doing everything right. I think she should be able to repeat. I think that's what she wants.”
Han picked up an encouraging win this week in the FILA Easter Bowl, a Level 1 tournament in Indian Wells, Calif. In the round of 64, she won 7-6 (8-6), 4-6, 6-3 of the fifth seed, Philadelphia's Kayla Chung, who is ranked No. 26 in 18-and-under. Han lost in the round of 32 to San Diego's Julieta Pareja 6-3, 7-5.
“I kind of had no expectations going into it because it's one of the harder tournaments of the year,” Han said. “But I was pretty happy with the way I played.”
Han, who also visited Wisconsin and Northwestern, said she was sold on Dartmouth's “great environment” and the chemistry within the program.
“Once I got the verbal offer, I knew I wanted it, so I just took it,” she said. “It definitely relieved some stress. The whole process is just stressful. I'm glad I got that sorted out.”
Pineda said that colleges began to show more interest in Han last summer.
“A lot of coaches that weren't even on the radar were contacting her, which I think was good, but it also put a lot of pressure on her, too,” Pineda said. “Committing early, I think it's been great for her mentally. Now that she's got that all taken care of, she's back focusing on just the task at hand.”
Playing for Clackamas has given Han a sample of the team dynamic that she will find in college.
“I think she's embraced that,” Pineda said. “Looking forward in her future, I think she's going to be an amazing college tennis player because she's going to have a team behind her with on-court coaching. She's going to translate really well to the college game.”
One of Pineda's star pupils, Jesuit four-time state champion Erin Larner (2011-14), went on to an all-American career at Northwestern. He said that Han and Larner are similar in that they are “very aggressive baseliners,” but they have different personalities.
“Lauren is a little more soft spoken. It takes a little bit to open her up,” Pineda said. “Erin was the same way, but Erin was definitely a little more vocal. But their game styles are very similar.”
Larner went undefeated in her high school career. Han could be on that same path, but her chance to be a four-timer was taken away by the COVID outbreak. Pineda said Han “100 percent” was tracking toward winning four championships.
“Even as a freshman, I don't think there was anybody,” Pineda said. “She was playing with a lot of confidence. She's had so much success, winning the 14s and 16s, that I think it would have translated easily into high school tennis.”
Han laments the missed opportunity, but has kept it in perspective.
“Four would've been great, but I still need to get two,” she said.