By Justin Sokeland
BEDFORD – Bella Stigall can make the strings on a tennis racket sing. Bedford North Lawrence’s senior standout has a plan to combine her two passions. Phase One has been completed.
Stigall, preparing for her final season with the Stars, signed to play college tennis with Johnson University, an NAIA program in Tennessee, on Monday afternoon. She’s the first BNL player in eight years to make the jump to the next level, following in the footsteps of Nicole Backherms (McKendree University and Southeastern University) in 2015.
She chose the Royals, guided by head coach Seth Hale, for two reasons. She formed an instant bond during her two visits, and she loves the Volunteer State, especially because of the Johnson campus proximity (located in Knoxville) to Nashville, the country music capital of the world. She plans to pursue a management degree and work into the music business as a manager.
“I really connected with the team,” Stigall said. “Right off the bat, I loved the girls and they made it feel like home. And I’ve always wanted to move to Tennessee.”
Stigall has been a fixture in doubles, earning All-Hoosier Hills Conference honors with cousin Mallory Pride. Johnson’s current eight-player roster (college tennis uses a nine-match scoring system, with six singles and three doubles teams) means some players have to play both disciplines, which means Stigall will have to sharpen her singles skills.
“I’m determined,” Stigall said, “and a team player. I will have to play both.”
Stigall fell in love with the game in the sixth grade. Her mother Joni is also BNL’s head coach, so perhaps there was a sense of inevitability with Stigall’s emersion into the sport. Ultimately, it was her choice.
“I wasn’t pushed,” Stigall said. “But it definitely helped having parents as coaches.”
Stigall’s decision will help the entire program.
“It’s huge,” Joni said. “She has higher plans than tennis, so this is a step in her life that she just loves to do. Other kids see this, and they need to see it’s possible. They need to know ‘We can do that.’”
Johnson competes in the Appalachian Athletic Conference. Hale helped start the program in 2013-14. The Royals went 12-10 last season, the best record in program history.
“Bella is going to be the type of player that can come into our program and immediately make an impact,” Hale said. “Her experience and success in doubles will help our team as she steps on campus. Bella also has already started to bond with our team and I am confident she will be an excellent and positive influence on our team.”