SPRINGFIELD — The power of Dakota Wilkes’ tennis strokes were surpassed by her smile Thursday morning.
She beamed broadly in the Effingham County gym lobby after signing a national letter of intent to attend Piedmont College. It was a historic achievement.
“(Dakota) is an outstanding young lady,” longtime Rebels assistant coach Hank Heller said. “We are extremely proud of her. I’ve been here since ’99 and I don’t know of anyone since ’99 that has signed a tennis scholarship — so this is a big thing for our school.”
Wilkes appeared destined for greatness since she arrived at the high school level. She was immediately dubbed the Lady Rebels’ No. 1 singles player.
“This is something I’ve been looking forward to for years now,” she said.
Wilkes took some lumps before developing into the player that Region 2-AAAAAA foes fear today.
“It was rough,” she said. “I think I won maybe three or four matches (as a freshman) but it helped teach me that this is what I wanted to do.”
Wilkes maintained her confidence despite some early bruising defeats, which helped her become an effective leader for the Lady Rebels.
“I didn’t really expect to play number one going in as a freshmen. I was just kind of stuck there,” she said. “It helped my tennis ability and it showed me that — by playing the number one spot — you do have to step up, especially as a freshman. That’s a lot of pressure put on but, when you have the right team that is willing to listen and put in the work, it makes leading so much easier.”
Wilkes said her recruiting process lasted a few months and she never fretted over it. She settled quickly on playing for the Lady Lions.
“(Piedmont College is) a really small school,” she said. “It has kind of a homey feel. If you go up there, it just feels like home and their tennis program is really good.
“They are predicted to be number one (in NCAA Division III) this year.”
Wilkes currently plans to enter Piedmont College’s athletic training program, although that might change.