Cloverleaf’s Emily Dunbar reached the quarterfinals of the Division I state tennis tournament in singles as a freshman and sophomore, was second in the state in D-II as a junior and placed third as a senior.
She finished with a 120-10 career record, received an athletic scholarship to play at the University of Richmond and is ranked 35th nationally among players in the class of 2017.
But don’t tell her she’s special.
“I don’t think people understand that there are so many people that are good, and so many people in the world that are so much better than I am,” the 17-year-old said. “They say I’m good, but I’m really not. I’m 35th in the country, but that’s just the country. And in my age group there are 34 people better than me.”
Dunbar, whose 4.4 grade-point average puts her ninth academically in Cloverleaf’s senior class, went on to point out there are a lot of other countries with gifted, hard-working players that are as good or better than she is, be they younger, older or the same age.
That’s her quiet, level-headed way of pointing out just how talented someone like 22-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams really is.
“Some people at school say they want to see me play Serena,” she said with a laugh. “I tell them I would lose quite badly, that I wouldn’t get a point.”
Dunbar learned all this early on, as she grew up not being anything special — at least when it came to being skilled at hitting a ball over a net — in her own family.
Her mom, Vicki (Nelson) Dunbar, won three D-I state titles at Wooster High and went on to play professionally. Her dad, Keith, has served as a teaching pro in 26 countries.
Oldest brother Ethan was a four-time Gazette MVP in boys tennis and finished fourth in the 2010 D-I state tournament as a Cloverleaf senior. Middle brother Jacob was a three-time Gazette MVP — he graduated from Cloverleaf in three years — and won the 2013 D-I state title in his final season.
Emily has carried on that tradition by earning her fourth straight Gazette MVP award in girls tennis, making it 11 straight seasons a Dunbar has received the honor.
That’s all fine and good, and Emily is definitely grateful, but she learned early and often — as did Ethan and Jacob — not to base her self worth on the outcome of a tennis match.
“It’s just a game,” Vicki said. “You do your best, but you can’t get too high or too upset about it. There are so many things in life that are like that. I hope (tennis) taught all of them about life, and I think it did because they seem to be well adjusted. There are so many things in life that don’t turn out the way you want. But as long as you’re motivated to keep working and are driven, that’s what matters. I hope it taught them that.”
“I just try to do my best,” Emily said. “You just have to realize that, in life, it’s a sport. You can’t worry about results or anything. You just have to do your best and enjoy what you’re doing.”
Cloverleaf coach Brenda Hewit first met Emily nine years ago, when the youngest Dunbar attended Colts tennis matches in Ethan’s freshman season. Back then, 8-year-old Emily’s primary objective was getting her hands on any unattended cell phone she could find.
Though Vicki says Emily now surpasses Ethan as her and Keith’s loudest child, that’s relative. The Dunbar children are all extremely modest and soft spoken in public, with Emily and Ethan loud only when compared to the extremely quiet Jacob.
“It’s such a nice family,” Hewit said. “They keep it in perspective. With all the playing Vicki’s done, she knows in the grand scheme of things, it’s tennis. You do your best and you win some and lose some. It was a privilege to coach Emily.”
Because Vicki and Keith wanted their children to have a religious upbringing but also wanted them to experience people with different backgrounds, views and beliefs, the Dunbars attended Medina Christian Academy prior to enrolling in the Cloverleaf school system, Ethan as an eighth-grader and Jacob and Emily in sixth grade.
Lafayette Township residents, there was a time, prior to Emily’s freshman year, when Vicki and Keith considered having their daughter attend another high school, but it was a very brief time.
“I think a lot of Cloverleaf,” Vicki said. “I like a lot of the teachers there. I felt it was important to play here, in her area.”
Emily, who loved representing her hometown school, didn’t want it any other way. Not because she wanted to stand out, but because she felt she fit in.
“She doesn’t like to be in the paper,” Vicki said. “She didn’t read anything in the paper this year. She didn’t even want to see it. She didn’t want to put any pressure on herself.
“I think that’s a good thing. You don’t want to get too caught up in yourself. You’re no different than anyone else. You should be humble. We’re just one little person in this world.”
Emily was out of this world — or at least out of this county — when it came to high school tennis. She went 28-3 in each of her first two seasons, 34-1 as a junior, when she was two points from winning a state title, and 30-3 as a senior.
Her two state quarterfinal appearances, second-place finish in 2015 — the highest by a county girl in the sport — and third-place showing this year make her the most decorated female tennis player in county history.
She won her first 23 matches this season without dropping a game — that’s 276-0 — and as a junior played one match that saw her win 48 points without losing one.
Those are eye-popping numbers, but Emily, realizing some of her opponents felt exactly how she would feel if she went up against Serena or Venus Williams, doesn’t pay the slightest bit of attention to them.
Nor does she dwell on not winning a state title in her illustrious career. That’s negative energy, and that’s something she disdains.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said of not winning a state championship. “I did my best. You can’t worry about it, because that really isn’t going to change how I go on from here and how I do later on. You can’t worry about it. You just move on.”
Next up for Emily is a United States Tennis Association National Selection Tournament in Alabama over Thanksgiving weekend, an age-group event in which she finished fifth last year. After that will come some Futures tournaments, which are pro events she will participate in as an amateur.
Then it will be on to college at Richmond, which also landed the services of Ethan and Jacob. More successes are likely to come, as will a few failures.
“There’s so many matches you play in your life,” Vicki said. “There are so many things to go through. Emily is 17 years old. She’s going to have a lot of ups and downs. I don’t want her to get too excited about a win or too down about a loss.”
It’s a pretty good bet Emily will do neither, and there’s absolutely no chance she will ever get a big head.
“I try not to think about it too much,” she said of the publicity she gets because of tennis. “I get a lot of attention, but I’m no better than anyone else. Everyone should get the attention I get.”
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