As a freshman, Lely’s Keith Embree advanced to the Class 3A individual singles final. The tennis standout figured he’d have three more chances to bring home the coveted state title.
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However, a slump and extremely tough competition sent Embree home the next two years short of his goal, making his senior season do-or-die time.
Embree responded with a fine senior year, culminating in the Class 2A singles championship. His clutch performance has earned him the Naples Daily News Boys Tennis Player of the Year.
“My main goal coming into the high school season was to win that state title,” Embree said. “With our school moving down to 2A this year, I felt very good about my chances.”
In years past, Lely competed at the Class 3A level. The last two years, Embree ran into top-notch competition which kept him from meeting his goal.
“It was a combination of me not playing very well and just running into some great players,” Embree said. “This year, I was very focused all year and I believe the mental part of my game improved. In tennis, it’s easy to let a match get away from you if you miss a few shots and fall behind. I thought I was mentally tough in the close matches this year.”
At the state tournament in Tampa, Embree showed his toughness by winning each match in straight sets. A few of the sets were closely contested, but he found ways to pull each one of them out.
“It wasn’t an easy tournament,” Embree said. “My serve really helped me out. It was a big weapon for me at states.”
Embree faced Joey Burkhardt of Menendez in the championship match, falling behind 5-3 before rallying for a 7-6 (7-2) win.
“We both started out slowly, but I was able to hang in there and pull it out,” Embree said. “I felt very confident after winning the first set.”
Embree finished a stellar year with a 17-2 singles record. His only two losses were to Reid Carleton, the No. 1 player on the Class 3A state champion Barron Collier Cougars. He helped his team earn a second-place finish at the state tournament.
“I thought having the team there really helped Keith stay focused,” Lely coach Kevin Smith said. “When you’re there just as an individual like he was as a freshman, it’s an entirely different feel. When you know you’ve got your teammates there watching you and cheering you on, it makes a difference.”
Embree is taking his game to the Division I collegiate level, accepting a full scholarship from South Florida.
“I’ll be starting over with a brand new challenge,” Embree said. “My first goal is to make the top six. I know I’ll have to work hard. The level of tennis is much better at Division I.”