It’s hard to be involved with Kennebunk High School and unfamiliar with Abbey Leonardi, a national-caliber distance runner.

For two years, however, a talented classmate of Leonardi’s flew under the radar. Maria Varano is one of the top schoolgirl tennis players in New England, but because she didn’t play for her school team, not many people knew about her.

That changed this spring. Varano helped the Rams improve from a 3-9 season to 9-4. She also won the MPA state singles tournament without dropping a set.

For doing so, she is our choice as Maine Sunday Telegram MVP for girls’ tennis.

“Just a real pleasure to have on the team, and not just because she won,” said first-year Kennebunk Coach Paul Gaylord. “She fit in so well. Wonderful teammate and wonderful kid.”

Gaylord approached the season with some trepidation. Would there be friction? Would Varano be accepted? Could she relate to lesser-skilled teammates? Could he make practices meaningful for her?

And what of Varano’s expectations? Would her New England ranking drop? Would college recruiters lose interest?

As it turned out, everything clicked.

“I was kind of skeptical going in, thinking I was going to lose my game,” Varano said. “But in reality, I had a really good coach and I believe that my game improved in some aspects.”

Gaylord frequently used a ball machine to feed Varano, resulting in improved accuracy for her shots. Other times, he matched her with senior Hannah Rush, Kennebunk’s No. 2 player, with the proviso that Varano only be allowed one serve.

Not only did Varano’s first serve get better, Rush got comfortable with more pace. After dropping her opening match against Gorham, Rush won 11 of her final 12 matches, including a playoff victory over the same girl from Gorham who had beaten her in straight sets.

“You talk about huge improvements,” Gaylord said. “I’d also have Maria hit with first and second doubles, so the other kids got to see good pace. They got to see good serves. It helped bring everybody up.”

In the state singles tournament, Varano dispatched her first three opponents handily to reach the semifinals. There, she took care of Analise Kump of Falmouth 6-2, 6-4 before beating Brunswick freshman Maisie Silverman in the final, 6-2, 6-1.

“The match itself was a lot closer than the scores,” Varano said. “Maisie really challenged me.

“She played a great game and I had to play my best to beat her.”

As for her USTA status, Varano’s ranking actually improved to the top 15 among New England’s 18-and-under girls, in part because several girls ahead of her aged out. Her recruiting ranking also rose from 15th to ninth in the region.

College coaches from Siena, Stonehill and Bryant have expressed interest.

“One of the neatest things was that her mom walked up to me four or five times this year and said, ‘Maria has had the best time she’s ever had in tennis, doing this team,’ ” Gaylord said. “Now she’s going to be able to step into college tennis and she knows how to fit in with a team. It’s not always easy for people who haven’t done it. So that’s kind of cool, too.”

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

gjordan@pressherald.com

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH