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Natalie Phippen plays No. 1 singles for the Stillwater tennis team, and the senior, a returning Class 2A state qualifier, hopes to set an example for her younger teammates with her determination and aggressive play. Photo: Carlos Gonzalez • cgonzalez@star

Natalie Phippen knows exactly what she wants on the court. She wants control. She wants to take action. The Stillwater senior and No. 1 singles player wants to bury it.

"If I have a shot that I can make and can put it away, I'll put it away," Phippen said. "I won't wait for the point to be over or wait for the girl to miss. I'll put away shots. I won't wait for anyone to come back at me."

That's a rather aggressive approach, and one that has paid off. Phippen has progressed since her junior high years on the varsity squad. Last year she broke through the section barrier and qualified for the state tournament.

While that's an accomplishment for most, Phippen wasn't pleased with the conclusion of last season, where she lost her opening match to an opponent she previously had defeated.

"Really disappointing," said Phippen, with disdain palpable in her voice. "I think the nerves just got me. I didn't really play that well."

She has turned her subpar state performance into pure motivation. There are no guarantees she will make it back to the state tournament, but the Ponies leader is a favorite to do so.

Coach Dave Kahl sees the new level of dominance in her eyes, court mentality and strokes.

"They don't have the ability to keep up," Kahl said of her opponents. "It's not easy to move balls corner to corner with pace. A lot of people don't have that weapon in their arsenal."

Phippen embodies the new-look 2012 Ponies: Confident, stronger and more assertive. Kahl said he hopes her attitude and work ethic will rub off on the rest of the team.

Some of it already has: More girls are putting in the offseason hours to get better.

Stillwater has backed up a top-10 Class 2A state ranking with a strong start, including a 3-0 mark in conference play and a 5-1 record overall. That includes a 4-3 victory over Mahtomedi on Monday afternoon. The Zephyrs, who beat Stillwater in the Class 2A Section 4 finals last year, were ranked higher than Stillwater at the time.

With teams such as Hastings, Forest Lake and Mounds View, the Suburban East Conference features an abundance of talent and depth.

"It'd be nice to have a couple of easy ones in there," Kahl said with a laugh. "We're going to have our work cut out for us every match. Going through some of these battles beforehand will hopefully pay some dividends."

While Phippen leads the way in the No. 1 slot, a team isn't ranked statewide without some depth. For the Ponies, that includes freshman Savannah Johnson and juniors Aliza Deming and Jenna Sherrick filling out the rest of the singles lineup. All three have gutted out key victories already this season.

When the team does well, it's more fun -- and contagious -- for everyone.

"Nobody really likes losing, right?" Phippen said. "Everyone wants to win. It makes it a lot more fun for the girls and just a better experience overall. This team as a whole hopes to win sections and make it to state. We're confident that we can do it."

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