Washington Sunday: Peters' Riske chooses Vanderbilt

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As a pre-teen, Peters Township resident Alison Riske would travel with her family to Nashville, Tenn., to see her older sister, Sarah, play tennis and become a four-time All-American for the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Alison was only 11 or 12 and just learning the game, and although she was playing tennis, her skills weren't yet established, certainly not well enough to project she could be a Division I player, let alone at a prominent Southeastern Conference school.

Yet Vanderbilt coach Jeff Macdonald began to "recruit" Alison at a young age. Whether he was initially kidding or not, maybe it was just his charming and friendly way to relate to a youngster, maybe he placed his bets on the family genes, or perhaps his talent evaluation skills are just that sharp.

Whatever the reason, Macdonald has been hopeful he would get to coach another Riske for quite a while. The longtime coach got his wish when Riske signed a national letter-of-intent with Vanderbilt on Tuesday.

"I felt very comfortable with the coach there," Riske said. "When I was going to watch my sister at Vanderbilt before I ever made a name for myself in the tennis world or did anything, Jeff was always saying, 'I want you to come to Vanderbilt. I want to recruit you.'

"It was special. He wanted me before I did anything in tennis. That was definitely a big part of [choosing Vanderbilt]. I'm very excited, real comfortable there. I can't wait for the year to start."

Riske joins a team that has finished ranked among the top 16 teams in the country during each of the past 14 seasons under Macdonald. But as prominent a school academically and tennis-wise as Vanderbilt is, Macdonald is just as happy to get a player on the level of Riske, one of the top junior females in the country.

"We are thrilled that Alison has chosen to come to Vanderbilt," Macdonald said. "To say she is an impact player is an understatement. In addition to her incredible tennis, she is a great student and person as well. Alison is a top-two or three player ever to sign with Vanderbilt."

A few years back, Riske began to establish herself as one of the top junior tennis players in the nation. Tennisrecruiting.net is considered a well-respected national evaluator, and the site had her as a prestigious "Blue Chip" recruit. Riske has been ranked as high as No. 1 in the nation by that site and by TennisRPI.

Having grown up in Peters, Riske honed her game in the area, primarily in Upper St. Clair under coach Janice Irwin, whom she credits for much of her development.

"She taught me so much," Riske said. "I credit everyone in Pittsburgh for helping me. I've been grateful for all the people I've encountered along the way."

A student of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School, Riske played only one year of high school tennis. She instead enrolled in national-level USTA junior tournaments and even a handful of professional events (though competing as an amateur to maintain her college eligibility).

The fall of 2006 was the only season Riske played for Peters Township High School. And during that campaign, she won the WPIAL and PIAA Class AAA singles titles -- losing only eight total games in eight matches during those tournaments -- and led the Indians to the PIAA team title.

"She was just on another level," Peters Township High School coach Brandt Bowman said. "I've been up to [the PIAA singles and doubles championships] the last couple years, and you don't see anybody at her level in high school."

Sarah Riske was a three-time WPIAL singles champion herself, and middle sibling Dan Riske was also quite a tennis player. He played at West Liberty State.

Riske now spends much of her time training in Hilton Head, S.C., where Sarah now lives and she can play outdoors almost year-round.

Alison has earned an international ranking, and she said she considered turning pro rather than heading to school.

"I definitely was thinking about it," Riske said. "It was a huge decision for me. If you look at a lot of the people, especially on the men's tour, however, they all go to college and come out after making a name for themselves.

"I really think for me going to college is the best decision. You never know what can happen, and a college education, especially from a place like Vanderbilt, can only help. I'm in it for the long haul, four years."


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