Army women's tennis coach Paul Peck knew Anne Houghton, who is just a plebe, was talented enough to be his team's No. 1 singles player, but he wasn't sure if she could handle the responsibility.
"There's a lot of pressure to step in at No. 1 and play good Division I college teams," Peck said. "We were playing Big East schools, Ivy League schools, stronger schools. There was pressure for her."
Peck's doubts were erased early this season, when his team traveled in mid-February to play a match against Pitt. Houghton, a Quaker Valley High School graduate, celebrated her homecoming with a 7-6 (3), 3-6, 10-3 win against Pitt junior Kristy Borza.
"To go out there and win in front of her hometown crowd, that says a lot about her mental toughness," Peck said.
Houghton would go on to post a stellar spring season for the Black Knights. She finished 18-6 in singles play and paired with junior Niki Flach to go 10-4 as the No. 1 doubles team. Along the way, she was named the Patriot League player of the month in February, and last week, she received Army's Most Valuable Player award.
Army, which won its fourth consecutive Patriot League title this season, will play at California May 9 in the NCAA tournament. Pairings were announced Tuesday.
"It's definitely been a really good season," said Houghton, who was recently named player of the year and rookie of the year in the Patriot League. "I'm excited and happy to be a part of this team."
Houghton came to Army following a successful high school tennis career. While at Quaker Valley, she won WPIAL Class AA titles as a freshman and sophomore, and won a PIAA championship her sophomore year. But she is best remembered for winning the WPIAL Class AA boys' singles title as a junior.
Her biggest concern in going to West Point wasn't succeeding on the tennis court, but rather adjusting to the demanding schedule at the United States Military Academy.
"West Point is different," Houghton said. "In the beginning, I was learning my way into the military academy. I didn't know what to expect. I just knew I was being yelled at all the time."
Along the way, she used tennis as an escape, and turned to her siblings for advice. One of Houghton's brothers, Rick, is a junior on the Army men's tennis team. Older siblings John and Kate are also USMA graduates.
"Playing at West Point, I really learned to appreciate and love the game of tennis," Houghton said. "It was my way to get away."
Houghton's move to No. 1 singles came early in the season. Two of Army's top players, juniors Brooke Jones and Flach, spent time away from the team because of injury and administrative issues.
At first, Houghton was apprehensive about the move.
"I was really happy to be able to step up," she said. "At the same time, I was now under pressure to win for my team and my coach. I was so use to tennis being an individual sport. When you play in college, it's a totally different thing."
Now, Houghton has grown to appreciate that team concept.
"It's been the biggest difference for me between high school and college," she said. "It's actually really a great feeling. I'm enjoying the responsibility of winning for my team."
Along the way, she has gotten some help in return, most recently in the Patriot League championship match against Bucknell April 20. Houghton, fighting the flu, lost her singles match to Tania Varela, 7-6, 5-7, 6-0. But Sarah Giles-Madden rallied to win at No. 3 singles, giving Army the conference championship.
"I was really weak. I literally couldn't move in the third set. It was just a disaster," Houghton said. "But Sarah stepped up. She showed that everyone contributes to a team, not just one person."
Houghton said she is looking forward to the NCAA tournament.
"I'm thrilled," she said. "I'm sure it will be amazing."
And Peck believes it could be the first of several trips for Houghton.
"She's just scratching the surface," he said. "This year, she had to deal with being away from home, and the heavy academic load. Freshmen usually really struggle with time management. For Anne to do as well as she has is just great."