Fresh start renewing lost passion

Ashley Schellhas is making the most of her short tenure with the Gophers.

Zach Eisendrath

Endings are usually final. Second chances are few and far between in life. And while everyone wishes at one point or another they could go back and do something differently, most never get a chance to change their conclusion.

But Ashley Schellhas of the Minnesota women’s tennis team has had one of those rare opportunities to modify her life story.

From a young age, Schellhas was set on being a professional tennis player. Her family supported her decision and allowed her to compete in national tournaments across the country throughout high school. That decision also meant she would be homeschooled for most of her high school tenure while also taking a couple of classes at Edina High School.

Friday nights after school Schellhas would fly out to Georgia to play more than 15 hours of tennis each weekend, then fly back Sunday nights.

That dedication turned Schellhas’ dream into a reality. She earned a No. 1 ranking by the Northern Tennis Association and won multiple national tournaments, including the 2001 Winter Super Nationals 18-and-under singles title.

With that résumé, collegiate tennis offers flooded the Schellhas household. Everybody recruited her, including perennial tennis powers Georgia, Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Florida and Vanderbilt. Schellhas quickly committed to the Commodores.

On the court, she enjoyed plenty of success in Nashville. Schellhas posted a 51-12 record, and in 2004 her Vanderbilt squad reached the NCAA Final Four.

But something was missing.

Constant traveling coupled with practice time on the court and workouts in the gym, Schellhas had missed out on many high school experiences, and the same was starting to happen in college.

Overworked and wanting to live more than a one-dimensional life, Schellhas decided to give up tennis for good three months into her junior year at Vanderbilt.

“Once I went to college, I just lost interest a little bit and started seeing what other aspects of life were about,” Schellhas said. “I just had never experienced life outside of tennis.”

After leaving the team, Schellhas didn’t try to transfer; in fact, she didn’t think she’d ever pick up a racquet again.

“It was the first time I ever started to dislike tennis,” she said. “My whole life I always loved tennis, loved playing and loved completing, but going into my third year, I started to realize that I lost that fire, and the love for the game was gone.”

While Schellhas continued to attend classes at Vanderbilt, where she graduated from last spring, Minnesota coach Tyler Thomson was keeping a close eye on the Minneapolis native.

Immediately after Schellhas quit the team, Thomson requested a release to speak with her.

“I really kind of got the indication that she didn’t want to play tennis again,” he said.

When Schellhas would return home for breaks throughout her final two years at Vanderbilt, Thomson invited her on unofficial visits to tour the facilities.

But just when Thomson thought he might have had a chance at Schellhas, the window closed again when she didn’t return his calls for more than six months.

However, the persistent Thomson still didn’t give up. Just three weeks before school was to begin this year, Thomson still had one more scholarship to give out – in a last-ditch effort, he called Schellhas, offering her a final year of eligibility, provided she was accepted into the University’s master’s program.

“I figured, why not try again. … She got reinvigorated about it,” he said.

Schellhas was three days away from starting her life in the “real world” by working at Accenture, a national consulting firm.

But after speedily being accepted into the University, those plans were put on hold for a self-fulfilling comeback tour.

“When I left (Vanderbilt), I sort of left it on a sour note and had never really come to terms with the way I left the game,” she said. “I just felt like this is my chance to kind of redeem myself with tennis.”

Out of tennis shape, Schellhas had to find her game quickly. She didn’t win a set the first three weeks of practice but is now playing No. 1 singles and No. 1 doubles, where Thomson figured she’d eventually end up.

Thomson said Schellhas’ work ethic and intensity, which she likely got from playing football and hockey with her three brothers, make her one of the best players he’s ever coached.

“She brings the highest level of intensity to practice every day, and she’s one of the best players we’ve ever had here,” he said.

Ashley’s mom Jane – just a part of Schellhas’ cheering section that also includes her uncle and cousins – is thrilled to be watching her daughter play for her home state. More important, she is happy her daughter enjoys playing the sport again.

“When you invest time in something, you always want people to enjoy it. She’ll play for the rest of her life because she has the passion renewed again,” she said.

Schellhas echoed those sentiments, calling her short tenure as a Gopher a “blessing.”

“I could lose every match the rest of the season and I don’t think I’d ever regret my decision to come play, because it’s the first time in about four years that I’ve been positive on the court and I’m having fun with it,” she said.