Cardinals Tennis’ Pursuit of Perfection

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Cardinals Tennis’ Pursuit of Perfection: The North Central women’s tennis team aims to complete an undefeated conference season.

It’s hard to improve on winning a conference tournament, but this fall the North Central women’s tennis team has found a way. After a perfect 27-0 match record and run through the CCIW tournament back in the spring, the Cardinals have followed it up by winning all 10 of their dual matches so far this season including an 8-0 conference record.

Ryan Jump: It’s not something that I sit and regularly think about. It makes life a little bit easier for us in terms of a seeding standpoint. At the same time though it is cool to look back and when you check off your goals, one of our goals is to win conference and have all the accolades that come with that and we’ve done a really good job of pushing towards that. It’s not something we sit on every day but it is something to look back on and say that was pretty neat.

Natalie Bassett: I feel like it was one of our practices where Ryan was like ‘oh yeah, this is our half-way point.

Kaeli Smashey: It was shocking.

NB: It was real at that time that we were halfway through our season. We only have one more match and then conference starts which has gone by crazy fast.

KS: Yeah, I feel like we just started.

There are few more individualistic sports than tennis. While each player or doubles team is, in theory, focusing on their own play and a given match, team tennis requires morale to remain high and players to be able to work together in order to maximize each others performances. This team’s biggest strength might not be it’s tennis talent, but its unity.

RJ: Egos are checked at the door. Which has been really refreshing, and when you get a group of individuals in an individualistic sport that are pretty alpha dominated. They’re used to being on their own, they’re used to being the best at what they do and typically coming from households and clubs and academies where they are the best at what they do. There can be some animosity and some egos and some of that drama and, from day one (day one being back in 2017) doing a really good job of squashing all the drama and checking all the emotions and BS at the door. I think it’s translated into our best team yet and being drama free as well so it’s been huge. 

The roster features six seniors, including three who were members of Jump’s first recruiting class. That includes first doubles pairing Hannah Hougland and Alaina Kanthaphixay, who have spent all four years working as a pairing. Any doubles team requires a strong relationship on and off the court, and they set the standard of being leaders and teammates for the rest of the squad.

Alaina Kanthaphixay: “What makes us such good partners is we’ve been together for four years, all four years. And I feel like our chemistry is very well put together.”

Hannah Hougland: “They asked us how we work together and I like to say we’re like the Beauty and the Beast. One of us hits very hard, the other one doesn’t but it’s a good combination. It messes up a lot of people we play because I hit an off-pace ball, she hits a hard ball, they’re not used to it. So it’s made us be very successful”

HH: We work really well, we communicate, our styles though are going to be different so the girls have to realize ‘yeah they’re not going to play the same way.’ But I think definitely our energy, the way we play together, the way we treat each other, If we mess up we’re positive, definitely is an example to the other girls on the team.

RJ: When they came in as freshmen it wasn’t really like they were freshmen. And they came in both on an academic and an athletic side well seasoned and they were good to go. And I think that upped our process in terms of where we wanted to go by a few years for sure. 

Last spring’s triumph was the first year in which the CCIW moved to a bracketed team format, with head-to-head team match-ups just like the regular season rather than players split up by individual flights like first or second doubles or first, second or third singles. This consistency of format makes these matches feel like the regular contests the team has dominated this year, but the players know they can’t overlook any opponent and have to stay focused on their goals as a team.

NB: We have our individual goals as ourselves, but I feel like on the team we know each others’ individual goals kind of well so we can come together as a team to make progres.

AK: Now it’s like a team tournament, and I’d rather have that because I feel like it’s more accomplished when we’re in a team instead of by ourselves.

KS: It’s not over yet. We still have work to do.

NB: I think it gives us really good confidence going into the tournament which is good to have going into a big tournament. But also, we’re not done we still need to get the job done and finish.

The conference tournament is just one day of a long schedule. The team will be back playing in the spring with a full slate of non-conference opponents and, they hope, a trip to the NCAA Championships. For head coach Ryan Jump, it’s not the successes in individual matches or tournaments that has made the team’s run of success special, but the relationships and memories that have been formed along the way.

RJ: Winning is always fun and I’ll never say it’s not fun, but watching the groups grow up, watching as we go through our first senior class last year our first recruiting graduating class this year, it’s crazy and they’ll say I’m not too sentimental about things like that, that is one thing that I am. Just watching them grow up, going through the relationships, and seeing where they’re gonna end up in five, ten, fifteen years I think that’s the coolest part of the whole thing.