Avery Larson has been playing varsity tennis for Mitchell High School since seventh grade, but she had to focus more on the mental game heading into this season.

After playing as Mitchell’s No. 2 singles player behind Sammy Pooley the past two seasons, Larson, got her chance to be the Kernels’ No. 1 singles player as a senior this year.

“It’s a lot different. It’s kind of stressful,” Larson said. “It makes you really have to work on your mental game. Knowing you’re going to play the best player on every team is kind of tough.”

She also maintained her role as part of Mitchell’s top doubles pair for the third straight season, albeit with Kelsey Dahme this season instead of Pooley.

Despite tougher competition and a new doubles partner, Larson’s play has remained strong. She’s 15-8 in singles play and 16-9 in doubles this season, and she’s starting the Eastern South Dakota Conference tournament today in Brookings playing her best tennis of the season, according to head coach Pat Moller.

Larson has won five straight singles matches, including an upset over Brandon Valley’s Tanna Lehfeldt on Tuesday, who Moller calls, “one of the top 3-4 tennis players in the state.”

“I’m sure when coaches around the state saw that, they were shocked,” Moller said.

Her current five-match winning streak comes after losing four of five matches. That said, part of her mid-season struggles were due to a toe injury.

Moller said that being healthy has been a key in her recent success, as well as her mentally growing during matches.

“The big step for her the last couple of weeks is she’s really thinking through points,” Moller said. “She’s setting up her next shot. I don’t think she’s thinking ‘this is it. I’m going to end the point here.’ ”

Having her experience to know what to expect in matches also helps. That experience is a big reason why she’s 4-0 in three-set singles matches this season.

In doubles play, her experience of two years of No. 1 doubles play with Pooley was why Moller thought she’d be a good fit alongside a net aggressive player like Dahme. And while Larson said it took a little time getting used to playing with a new partner, it didn’t show. The pair won their first seven matches and ended the regular season winners of four of their last five.

“It’s different because Sammy and I had three years of playing together, so we built court chemistry,” Larson said. “But Kelsey and I have always been really good friends, so we play well together.”

Larson and Pooley’s relationship has continued off the court, too. Larson says former seniors still come to their matches this year, with Pooley trying to make sure Larson doesn’t get caught up on one point and, “moves onto the next point if the things don’t go well before that.”

Larson knows the expectations of Kernel tennis, saying she wants to win another ESD team title and place top-five in state as a team.

Her individual goals are lofty, too.

“I’d like to win ESD, but I’d like to get in the championship match for sure,” Larson said. “For state, just really do my best and see how it goes.”