Take a glance over the Fort Hays State University tennis team’s roster. One crucial word is nowhere to be found: senior.
Brian Flax’s squad reads one junior, two sophomores and five freshmen for a squad that finished 11-11 overall and 2-8 in the MIAA last season, one spot shy of appearing at the MIAA Women’s Tennis Championships. On the backs of a disappointing season, the Tigers return just two players from 2014 — junior Raven Dick and sophomore Jessica Johnson.
“It’s kinda like a fresh start,” said Flax, the 19-year veteran of the FHSU tennis program. “We lost a lot of the experience and talent from last year so to have this many new people in your program in one year you have to have a lot of patience and we’re doing that.
“It’s kind of refreshing because these kids see strides everyday and the season’s still very young. It really puts some charge back into you as a coach.”
As a sophomore, Dick was 3-2 at the No. 6 singles spot and 2-0 in doubles after going 3-14 and 1-7 as a freshman. In her first season of college tennis, Johnson was one of the more successful Tigers, going 4-3 at No. 5 singles with a 9-10 overall record and a 9-10 doubles record on the season.
Coming off a freshman season that saw her getting court time right away, Johnson said her biggest takeaway was learning everybody around her was always there by her side.
“I think that one of the main things I learned is that you have a team there for a reason,” Johnson said. “If you have questions or need support, really lean on your team. In high school you have a team but it’s not like a college team. You have the coaches and players that are invested in you to lean on. … Once you get that confidence from your team, you go so much farther.”
The Tigers welcome sophomore Taylor Noel, a transfer from Kansas Wesleyan, as one of six additions to the team. Of the five freshman, Flax said Laura Jiminez-Lendinez, a native of Madrid, Spain, has earned herself a spot near the top of the lineup after an impressive preseason. Also in the mix with pleasant showings is Alina Villalovos, a freshman from Hereford, Texas, and Haley Weidemann, a Colorado state champion from Ralston Valley High School.
With the majority of the squad having zero college experience, Flax has been impressed with the leadership of his three older players in showing the freshmen the ropes.
“They’ve been really great with the young kids, trying to teach them how hard they have to work on the court during practice and how it’s gonna pay off,” Flax said. “Even then, that’s not a lot of experience with one junior and two sophomores. They’re doing a great job with the young ladies.”
With the majority of the group close in age as underclassmen, Johnson said the team’s chemistry came along quickly and will be helpful as each player works to improve in the fall.
“I think we’re meshing very, very, very well,” Johnson said. “Everybody’s really excited for practice every day. You can definitely tell it’s the best part of everybody’s day. When you have people that are so excited to be on your team, it really makes going to practice fun. … Everybody’s really excited and that’s really carrying over to our energy and conditioning.”
While they will get down to business when the tennis matters most in the spring with conference season, the Tigers head to Colorado for three matches this weekend with teams from the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. The Tigers face off with Colorado State-Pueblo on Friday before matches with Colorado Mesa and Metro State on Saturday.
Johnson said the difference with matches in the fall is trying to find out what works on the court while the spring is more game planning while improving each week.
“I think that all of our main goals are to better ourselves right now,” Johnson said. “We know that this is still compete so of course we want to win, but everyday at practice is different from the spring. In the spring you don’t want to change things, you want to have your gameplan, but right now we’re so ready to take direction from the coaches and other players. Right now with getting ready for the spring is just bringing everything you have and keeping everything very simple and getting advice from others.”
The Tigers hope to play their best tennis come spring and Flax has a few goals for his team this weekend to work toward the MIAA season.
“Right now the number one thing is getting them on the courts and getting some match time,” Flax said. “When you roll out that many freshman kids coming straight from high school and heading right into Division II competition, there’s a learning curve that we have to get through. … I just want to go out there and see how much fight they have. The three programs in the RMAC we’re playing are pretty good programs. Going on the road for the very first time, we’re gonna just see how they react to that type of situation.”