Sherwood High tennis coach Bill Harrison will never forget the day in October 1997 he met Mary Ho, a young immigrant from Vietnam who could barely speak English.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Evelyn Davidson, an English language teacher at the Sandy Spring school, told Harrison she had a freshman student who wanted to try out for the team. The regular season already had been completed, so Harrison told Davidson it was too late for any additions. But he agreed, begrudgingly, to watch Ho hit.
His skepticism increased the moment Ho, a diminutive 4-foot-11, 98-pounder, walked out onto the tennis courts at Sherwood.
"I said to myself, 'Alright, let me get this viewing over with,' " Harrison said. "The next thing I see is this girl hitting cannon shots from both sides, and my mouth dropped wide open. I made her promise to come out for the team her sophomore year."
Davidson, who teaches "English for Speakers of Other Languages," failed to mention that in 1996, Ho, then 13 years old, had been ranked fifth in Vietnam in the 16-to-18 age group and second in the 14-to-16 division.
"In our ESOL classes, we hear from our students about what they did in their countries, and Mary mentioned she played tennis," Davidson said. ". . . You could see the expression on the coach's face change quickly, because it was obvious she had ability. By her size, you just wouldn't think she'd be able to hit the ball like she does."
Ho, a native of Minh-hai in South Vietnam, said when she was 13 years old she started hitting tennis balls against a wall after watching a professional tennis tournament staged in her city. She joined the Minh-hai boys tennis team and trained up to four hours a day under coach San Tran.
"I like hitting with boys because they are strong," Ho said of her 16- and 17-year-old teammates. "It's better for me because they make me run. I like moving around a lot."
The team represented Minh-hai at tournaments across the country. Ho and her 14 teammates would pile into a van and drive to sites such as Hanoi, Hue, Nha-trang and Saigon.
"The trip to Hanoi took two days," Ho said. "We arrived at about 7 o'clock at night, rested, then the tournament started the next morning."
Ho also received an invitation to play in a major international tournament in Singapore that included female players from Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and China. She advanced to the third round.
A second chapter in Ho's life began in September 1997 when her family was granted permission to leave Vietnam and join relatives in the United States. It completed a journey that began 13 years earlier, when Ho's grandparents and seven aunts and uncles fled Vietnam with four other families in a 10-meter-long homemade boat.
Ho's parents decided the trip was too dangerous for their daughter, who was 6 months old at the time. So they made the difficult decision to stay back and wait for another opportunity. The rest of the family went ahead, and arrived successfully in Malaysia, and was transferred between refugee camps for a year before finally making it to America in 1985.
"I wanted to come to the U.S. because of my children," Mary's father, Thanh Ho, said. "I wanted to make their lives better because life is better here than in Vietnam."
In November 1997, Christopher Hodges, an American who married Ho's aunt in 1993, began taking Ho to Mid-Atlantic tennis tournaments at his own expense. He also paid for her to take group lessons at Aspen Hill Racket Club in Silver Spring in January of last year and private lessons with Blair High Coach David Ngbea. However, because "the costs [became] too high," Hodges said, Ho has stopped playing in tournaments and has not had a private coach since the spring of 1998.
When Ho is not practicing with the Sherwood team, she trains by herself at local parks, "playing with whoever shows up," she said.
"I would like to have a coach," Ho said. "I'm not the best player and I don't know everything, so I need somebody to help me."
Nevertheless, she has talent. Back on that first day she and Davidson defeated Harrison and Sherwood's All-Met Kristin Roth, 7-6, in a set of doubles. Last season, she placed second at the Montgomery County No. 2 singles tournament, losing to Whitman's Barbara Luse in a three-set final. Then at the Maryland District II regional tournament, she fell to eventual state champion Anna Goldstein in the semifinals, one round short of state qualification.
This season, Ho is 4-1 at the No. 2 singles position and her English, almost nonexistent two years ago, has improved dramatically.
"You see the initiative that she has on the court in the classroom as well," Davidson said. "In just a short period of time she's acquired a tremendous amount of English, much more than other students. She has a tremendous determination, and I'm just so proud of her."
Notes: Walter Johnson's Diana Palupa is 4-0 and has not lost a set this season. Last Friday, she defeated Sherwood senior All-Met Kristin Roth, 6-3, 6-2. The match was Roth's seventh setback in four years of high school tennis.
"I came out psyched, and I felt great," Palupa said. "I've been working all summer with my brother and felt on. I have to have been playing my best or else I wouldn't have been able to beat Kristin."
Mary Ho at a Glance
School: Sherwood High.
Height: 4 feet 11.
Weight: 98 pounds.
Position: No. 2 Singles.
1999 Record: 4-1.
Personal: Ho is popular among teammates and across Montgomery County. "She's always been so easy to get along with," said All-Met Kristin Roth, a senior and Sherwood's No. 1 player. "Everybody loves her. She's really upbeat, keeps everybody positive and she's always happy."
Said Sherwood Coach Bill Harrison, "At the county tournament, the girls just rush up to her and put their arms around her, because she's just a really pleasant person."
Ho said tennis was about 95 percent of her life in Vietnam. But now, she is beginning to have more of a long-term outlook.
"I hope I can earn a scholarship to play college tennis at a school that has a good pre-med program," Ho said. "I want to become a doctor."