by Jessica Razanadrakoto
It all began with soccer — and a 5-year-old girl who wore a skirt to her first match because she refused to wear shorts. For that reason, sophomore Taylor Peña’s mom thought it would make more sense to steer her toward the tennis court instead.
Peña, now Whitworth’s No. 2 player on the women’s team, has never looked back.
Born in Georgia, she moved to Las Vegas when she was 5, and started learning how to play tennis. Peña played tennis outside with other kids in group lessons. When Peña’s family eventually moved to Medford, Ore., she met her high school coach Frank Inn, who would change her life.
“He’s taught me basically all the techniques and strokes that I know. That’s how I really got into tennis,” Peña said. “So, I started playing tournaments and competitively.”
Before coming to play for Whitworth, Peña attended Cascade Christian High School. Because Cascade Christian was a small school, it could not field a girls’ tennis team, so she played on the boys’ team instead.
Peña’s gender-neutral first name would often confuse her high school opponents on the court, who would be expecting a male Taylor, but would find a girl across the net instead. Thus, Peña grew accustomed to playing with the boys. Though she was the only girl on the team, she did not allow the situation intimidate her.
“It was always funny watching their faces when I walked on the court because Taylor is either a girl or a boy’s name, so they wouldn’t know if I was a boy or a girl,” Peña said. “They weren’t afraid to hit the ball at me and I wasn’t afraid to beat them. So, just beating the boys was really fun.”
Peña played doubles each year of high school and went to the boys’ state tournament her junior and senior year, where she and her doubles partner finished third and fifth.
“I think that playing tennis with the boys in high school helped her prepare for college tennis. It prepared her to play against harder hitting,” head coach Jo Wagstaff said.
Junior Saryn Mooney said that practicing with men is certainly different than practicing with women.
“Taylor is used to aggressive [hits] and feels comfortable hitting with the guys,” Mooney said. “She can certainly keep up with them and can beat them.”
Peña gives her opponents a competitive match, no matter the gender of the players on the other side of the net are.
“It’s still a tennis ball no matter who it comes from, and so it’s another way to practice whether or not it’s coming from a boy or a girl,” Peña said.
Last fall, the Whitworth women’s tennis team played in the Northwest Fall ITA tournament with all the teams in their conference. Peña made it to the quarterfinals, assistant coach Colin Storm said. After losing the first set in the quarterfinals, she rallied the rest of her match against her Whitman opponent and pulled out the win.
With her performance, she not only set an example for her teammates, but also for her 13-year-old sister, Sophie.
“When I was a lot younger, I remember watching her play at tennis tournaments. Watching her had made me a better player because I’m a very visual learner,” Sophie Peña said.
Peña’s drive to improve has made her by far the most competitive player in the team, Storm said. Additionally, Storm said that Peña is focused, which she translates onto the court.
“She’s adding the element of power to her game and consistency,” Wagstaff said. “She had really nice groundstrokes coming into college, and she’s working hard on volleys now, making volleys to be more part of her game.”
Though one of the younger players on the team, Peña has shown leadership qualities while leading by example, Wagstaff said.
Peña plans to seek a career in pharmacy or similar field because of her family members in the medical field, she said.
“I love science and I love the idea with pharmacy to treat people through a non-invasive treatment,” Peña said. “You don’t have to do surgery, but you can provide medications in order to help them because surgery is not always an option for people.”
Peña wants to stay in the Pacific Northwest to study for the doctoral degree needed to become a pharmacist.
Contact Jessica Razanadrakoto at firstname.lastname@example.org