Laura Sonday can hear her opponents talk before a match, and all she can do is laugh — and then use it to her advantage.
"Yeah, it's almost every time; I can hear them say, 'Dude, you're going to play a girl," she said. "I'm not sure most teams know we have a girl on our team, and it's a bit of a shock, maybe. They don't know how to react. And that helps me."
As South St. Paul boys' tennis coach Dan Erickson put it, Sonday needs little help in handling the attention she's received so far this spring as the Packers' No. 1 singles player.
Yes, she's a girl playing — and excelling — on a boys' varsity team, Erickson said. He can understand the attention and talk before a match, but it doesn't take long for that to quiet down.
"If you've met Laura, you know she can stand up for herself," he said with a laugh.
This spring Sonday has let her racket do the talking. Playing in South St. Paul's top spot in the lineup, she is 5-2, mirroring the same record as her team, which is off to one of its best starts in years.
"She's our rock star," Erickson said. "It helps out a lot having a No. 1 player like that, which is a tough spot to win at. If you have someone that can get that point at the top, it makes it easier on everyone else."
Last May, Sonday faced a sobering reality. She'd torn her ACL in a track meet, and the six- to eight-month recovery meant she'd miss the girls' tennis season that fall in her senior year.
Arguably one of the 10 best girls' tennis players in the state, Sonday was disappointed but slowly accepted it. After all, she would be back in time for her final high school basketball season and would be playing tennis the next fall at St. Mary's in Winona.
"Then a friend just suggested to me that I play for the boys' team in the spring," she said. "I didn't even think about that but I was like, 'Heck, yeah! That's a great idea.' "
She called Erickson, who also coaches the girls' team. He was on board from the get-go.
"It just kind of went from there," Sonday said. "Right away, I was pretty serious about it."
Sonday said rehab for her knee went well. She was back on the court, for tennis and basketball, after about seven months. She played her final basketball season, then joined the boys for their first practice this spring.
Ability over gender
Team captain Addam Velasco isn't surprised by how quickly Sonday has adapted to the boys' game.
"I've seen her play before during her girls' season, and I knew she was a great athlete and she competes well," he said. "I'm not surprised at all."
Velasco and Sonday are good friends, and he said it didn't take long for the rest of the team to quickly accept her. She earned her spot, Erickson said, through qualifying in practice. Once two players are on the court, gender doesn't matter; only talent does.
That's the great thing about tennis, Sonday said. Unlike basketball, where a different ball and player size make a world of difference, all that matters on the tennis court is that she can hit the shots she needs.
Sure, she hears the whispers before a match starts. But she loves how quiet it is when it's over.
"In the [tennis] community, I'm not seen as just a girl, but another player," she said.