Valley women headed to net nationals
Call it the improbable dream.
Missouri Valley College tennis coach Ryan Carney admits that when the fall season began, suggesting to outsiders that the women's team could win the Heart of America Conference title would have had people thinking he was "crazy."
After all, the Lady Vikings were coming off a 3-11 campaign the previous year and inserting four freshmen into the starting line-up. Competing with the league's more established programs was going to be a challenge.
On Saturday, though, Valley accomplished that goal on the Marshall High School courts, avenging an earlier loss to William Jewell with a 5-1 decision.
"We played amazingly well," Carney said. "I don't think I've ever had a team more ready to play."
The victory sends the Lady Vikings to the NAIA Championships for the first time since the program was started in 2003.
As the No. 2 seed in the HAAC Tournament, Valley got a first-round bye, but in Friday's semifinal round had to face a Graceland squad which it had barely beaten three days earlier.
The Lady Vikings had posted that 5-4 win by taking the top five singles matches after being swept in doubles, but were in slightly better shape the second time around because of an 8-6 victory by freshman Davina Holtfreter and sophomore Lindsay Tworek at No. 3 doubles.
"Even though we were down, I felt good about our chances," Carney said.
Once again, Valley didn't lose a singles match -- getting wins from Holtfreter (6-4, 6-4) and freshmen Elanqua Griffin (6-4, 6-1), Tershelle Burrows (6-3, 6-4) and Juliana Doyle (6-4, 6-2) for a 5-3 triumph.
That brought on the Lady Cardinals, a 5-4 winner during their April 15 meeting.
Doubles played out the same, with the Lady Vikings taking two of three behind the Holtfreter-Tworek (8-4) combo and the No. 2 duo of Burrows and Doyle (8-5).
However, Jewell had won four times in singles previously, so someone needed to reverse the earlier outcome -- and someone did: the lone senior, Marshall product Nicki Erickson.
Holtfreter (6-2, 6-2) and Tworek (6-2, 6-2) repeated their prior success against the Lady Cardinals (11-8), but Erickson turned the tables on freshman Tanya Ratana at No. 2 -- in convincing style, 6-1, 6-1 -- after having lost to her in three sets the first time around.
"I knew that was going to be tough to pick up that fifth point, and Nicki did it," Carney said. "She played the best match I've ever seen her play.
"I can't imagine a better finish to Nicki's conference career," he remarked.
The end for the young Valley men's team came quickly, with a 5-0 first-round loss to Jewell (8-9), which had barely beaten the Vikings by a 5-4 margin 10 days earlier.
What changed in the Cardinals' favor was an 8-2 win at No. 2 doubles by sophomore Kyle Lehenbauer and senior Michael Holmes over freshmen Jason Rolle and Daniel Rhoades and junior Cody Pflugradt's 6-0, 6-2 victory over Rolle at No. 1 singles.
Jewell would lose a 5-0 semifinal to Graceland, which would go on to take the crown from Lindenwood, 5-0.
"We have a really young team and it showed," Carney said about his Vikings (5-9). "I was pleased with the guys' effort, and -- with no seniors -- I look forward to having this more-experienced group back next year."
He won't have to wait until next year for the Lady Vikings, but there will be some time off before they head to the national tournament, which begins May 12 at Mobile, Ala.
"Our girls believed we could do it, and we did, so it feels great," Carney declared. "I am so proud of them."