Howell siblings lead Rhodes into nationals

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 24, 2002

[05/20/02]For years, Duncan and Hennessey Howell were two of the best tennis players in Mississippi. Starting today, they’ll get their first chance to see where they stack up against the rest of the country.

The Howells, both former Vicksburg High stars, will represent Rhodes College at the NCAA Division III doubles championships. Duncan, a junior, will compete in the men’s championships in Santa Cruz, Calif., while freshman Hennessey will participate in the women’s championships in Sweetbriar, Va.

Playing on opposite sides of the country will make it hard for the siblings to stay on top of each other’s matches, Duncan said, but it won’t diminish their cheers for each other.

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“We’ll definitely stay in touch. The time zones are different, so it’s going to be kind of difficult,” said Duncan Howell, who reached the Class 5A state singles final all four years he played on the varsity at VHS, winning twice. “I’m real proud (of Hennessey). She’s been playing some really good doubles.”

It’s similar to the way their seasons have gone. Both have been outstanding for the Memphis college and helped each other where they could, but more often than not have been forced to root for each other from afar.

“It’s real hard during the season because often times we’re playing at different sites,” Duncan Howell said. “We do what we can, but you’re definitely a lot more on your own playing college tennis than in high school.”

Getting a chance to play tennis with her brother wasn’t the main reason Hennessey chose to go to Rhodes anyway, but she said it was a factor. A bigger one was the tennis program itself, which she has boosted to a new high with her play this season.

Howell and teammate Laura Hoffmeister posted a 19-4 record at No. 1 doubles this season, helping Rhodes to a 22-1 record and the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference regular-season championship. Trinity beat Rhodes in the championship match of the SCAC tournament, however.

“She walked in and is playing number one doubles, which is almost unheard of,” Rhodes coach Sarah Hatgas said. “To go to nationals as a freshman is pretty special.”

The feat wasn’t lost on Hennessey. She admitted she and Hoffmeister would probably be overmatched this week, but was hoping for a good showing that would propel them into next year.

“We have a good chance to hang in there with them. It would be a stretch to win, but we think we can hang in there with them,” Hennessey Howell said, adding that if the team comes up short, “I won’t be disappointed at all. I’ll just be glad to have gotten this far. I hope we can just go up there and get a couple of wins and look forward to next year.”

Duncan Howell, meanwhile, has his eyes set on higher goals.

He was selected to the All-SCAC first team and he and doubles partner Andy Campbell earned Rhodes’ first-ever bids to the men’s national tournament. Their 22 wins this season are third-best among the NCAA doubles finalists, and has them confident heading into the individual championships.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Duncan Howell said. “We’ve had a lot of minor setbacks and a lot of times that things haven’t worked at the same time, but this year we’ve worked out a lot of the kinks in our game.”

Most of those setbacks came at the hands of Emory’s Mark Odgers and Alex Jacobs. The tandem has usually been one step ahead of Howell and Campbell this season, beating them in a regular-season match and then again in the NCAA team competition.

“Both times we’ve played, we haven’t walked away feeling great about the way we played,” Duncan Howell said.

They figure to be Howell and Campbell’s main obstacle again this week.

Odgers’ and Jacobs’ torment of Howell and Campbell is similar to what Howell has done to another Vicksburg-area product recently. Sewanee’s Jason Abraham, a former Chamberlain-Hunt star from Port Gibson, was also chosen to the All-SCAC first team.

Abraham and partner Adam Kent lost to Howell and Campbell in both the SCAC tournament and the NCAA tournament.

“He had a really close match. One game and it probably would’ve been Jason and his partner in nationals,” Hennessey Howell said.

It wasn’t always that way, however. Abraham and the Howells shared the same youth coach several years ago, and Hennessey Howell said Abraham used to have the upper hand. Somewhere in their teens, Duncan gained an advantage and hasn’t relinquished it.

Duncan said the rivalry between the two as well as the Sewanee and Rhodes tennis teams is more of a friendly one, but it has helped put the tennis program in the Vicksburg area on the map. In addition to the Howells and Abraham, VHS’ Jordan Henry and Bill Hassell, Warren Central’s Chase Koestler and Lori Beth Shelton, and St. Aloysius’ Carrie Neill have all shone on the junior level. Neill also won a Class 1A girls high school singles state title this year.

“It makes me feel good, because there aren’t many from around here, but the ones that are are good,” Hennessey Howell said.