Tiger tennis loses twice, enjoying solid year
By KLINT SPILLER
Fort Hays State University senior tennis player Melissa Skovira said looking back to her freshman year, her team has made a 180-degree turn.
FHSU, which previously resided near the bottom of the conference since joining the Mid-America Intercollegiate Association in 2006, has since made up some of the gap on some of the more competitive teams in the league.
The Tigers (8-5, 2-3 MIAA) have a winning record and are in the middle of the conference scrum.
"It's incredible. We are so dedicated and hard working," Skovira said. "This team wants to win. My other teams were obviously awesome and had great spirits, but here, it is so competitive. It's awesome. That's why we are winning more matches."
However, this weekend, they saw firsthand they still have room to improve to catch up to the top teams. The University of Central Oklahoma and Northeastern State University, No. 2 and No. 3 in the MIAA, came to Hays and defeated FHSU by 8-1 and 9-0 margins Friday and Saturday at the Tiger Courts, respectively.
Nevertheless, Skovira said the Tigers are hungry to win.
Teams that used to crush FHSU are now beatable in their eyes.
"Emporia just beat Missouri Western 7-2, and we killed Missouri Western 9-0," Skovira said. "Instantly in our heads, we think we totally can beat Emporia. ... I think we are very hungry, and we really want to win."
On Friday, Skovira saw her own improvement firsthand when her and sophomore Brittney Ricci knocked off Central Oklahoma's No. 1 doubles team, ranked fifth in the Central Region, 8-6.
"Even last year, Britney and I lost our doubles match to Central Oklahoma probably in 15 to 20 minutes. It was so embarrassing," Skovira said. "... Here, we are down and we started playing out of minds, and we realized we can do this. We are just as good as them. We need to get it in our heads first. We need to believe we can win, and then we'll win."
Skovira credited the coaching for their improved play. Brian Flax has been a longtime fixture at FHSU, taking over the head coach position 16 years ago, but he's also received help from former assistant coach Oscar Gomez and current assistant coach Andres Torres.
"Our shots are improving," Skovira said. "We are mixing it up now. Everyone was such hard hitters my freshmen year. That's all we knew. Now we are using top spin, slice and we are coming up to net."
Flax said the program received a boost from a $2 student fee increase that was passed through a student referendum in 2011. He said the fee revenue has helped the athletic department cover expenses and open more of its budget for athletic scholarships.
"I think things started to turn when that student fee went through," Flax said. "You have more scholarships to give out and get better players. All of a sudden, good players who were having to play at the top of lineup are now playing in the middle and having a lot more success."
That success was seen firsthand by players. Laura Johnson, now a senior, might be the perfect example.
She has seen a drastic increase in wins. Her freshman year, she played No. 1 and No. 2 singles. Now she mostly plays No. 5 singles, and she's improved from a 2-16 freshman season, to a 4-16 sophomore season, to a 7-12 junior season and is 9-6 so far this year.
"Laura is a hard worker," Flax said. "She works very hard on her technique."
If she doesn't get it, she has been willing to put in the time to get it," Flax added.
It's not just Johnson, either. The entire roster has seen a similar improvement.
The Tigers won 38 percent of their singles matches four years ago, 39 percent three years ago, 57 percent last year and 59 percent so far this year.
"There's a lot more depth," Skovira said. "During practice, you can get beat by the No. 1 girl, No. 2 girl or No. 6 girl on the team.
"The entire day, you have to be on your toes. We are all so evenly matched."
With the meat of their schedule remaining against some of the middle-tier teams, Flax said his squad is hoping to prove it deserves to be in the thick of things in the MIAA.
"That's next rung we are trying to get to," Flax said. "We are wanting to get to the Washburns, the Emporias, that level.
"We've moved out of the bottom and haven't been there for a couple years. Now, we are trying to climb to the next rung."