Published July 11. 2013 4:00AM Updated July 11. 2013 8:30PM
Joan Li's brush with East Lyme High School tennis history came well before she won this year's Eastern Connecticut Conference championship.
She was a younger player when she noticed Tom Santoro, East Lyme's 2005 State Open champion, giving lessons on the high school courts. Li and a friend asked if he could teach them, too.
"He was really patient," Li said of Santoro. "He wasn't easygoing in any way. He definitely knew how to work you hard. My friend and I took the lessons together; Tom made us run suicides and the loser had to run two extra laps.
"I practically grew up on those courts."
It was 2013 that Li, in her third year as the Vikings' No. 1 singles player, began to channel her inner Tom Santoro.
She played with confidence, not caution in beating reigning ECC champion Annika Burgess of Stonington for the league championship, 3-6, 6-2, 7-5, overcoming a 4-0 deficit in the third set.
Li, who led East Lyme a year ago in reaching the championship match of the Class M team tournament and added the individual title this year to cap her career in the ECC, was named The Day's 2013 All-Area Girls' Tennis Player of the Year.
"I think it was a mental improvement: her outlook improved, her belief in herself improved," East Lyme coach Laurie Zrenda said of Li. "I think she realized she could hang in with (Burgess). ... After the final, I think she felt incredible relief and joy. It's something she always hoped for. She was always waiting her turn."
"This year was kind of a breakthrough in a way. I just stopped being so restrained about how I played and went for shots," Li said.
When Li arrived at East Lyme, it was Victoria Santoro, Tom's younger sister, who was the Vikings' No. 1 and a player Li saw as "amazing to me."
As a freshman, Li was part of a singles lineup led by Santoro which didn't drop a set the entire season. The Vikings were 15-0 with an ECC Large Division title.
As a sophomore and junior, Li reached the ECC tournament semifinals and earned All-ECC and All-Area honors, adding Class M all-state distinction as a junior when East Lyme also went undefeated during the regular season and finished second in the state.
This season, she and Burgess split their two regular-season matches before the final on May 24 at Mystic Indoor Tennis.
Li was still a little intimidated against the defending champ on an unfamiliar surface - "I wanted to make sure it was fun," she said, "I didn't want to get all down on myself" - but figured she'd give it a shot.
It was a long way from the day she first arrived at East Lyme, prior to which Zrenda "heard there was a good, little freshman coming."
Li, who wishes to major in English and economics, will attend Harvard University in the fall. She was accepted early decision, saying she "freaked out" when the notice was sent on the computer.
She leaves her sister, Melinda, who will be a junior, as one of East Lyme's up-and-coming singles players.
Zrenda noted that Melinda left Joan a nice Facebook note the night of graduation.
"She's an interesting character," Joan Li said of her sister. "She brings a lot of life to the team. For graduation, she wrote and basically said how much she admired me and stuff. We like to taunt each other a lot, so to see that said and written out was a nice change."
Zrenda said it's part of the team dynamic that a younger player will look up to an older one, the way Li did with Victoria Santoro, until it's the younger player's time to seize the moment.
Li did just that.
"She's one of the best East Lyme's had," Zrenda said. "I'm going to miss her, that's for sure."