RCW: The Resurgence of Kansas Tennis
Six conference titles. Five ITA All-Americans. Seven NCAA Tournament team appearances. Eight singles and three doubles Individual NCAA Tournament appearances. All before the year 2000.
A storied program. That’s how one would describe the Kansas women’s tennis team. Historic, which is what current head coach Todd Chapman saw when he visited Lawrence as a Big 12 opponent.
“The more I looked into it, the more I realized how special of a program they used to have,” said Chapman. “They had so many conference championships and national champions as far as teams and individuals. That was all in the past and enough in the past that it had been forgotten about. The more I was here as an opponent I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t Kansas tennis be like it used to be?’ I fell in love with the place.”
He loved KU so much that he told his head coach at Texas Tech that if the head coaching job ever became available in Lawrence he was going to strongly pursue the position. Prior to leading the Jayhawks, Chapman served as the assistant coach at Texas Tech. During his stint in Lubbock, Chapman helped take the Lady Raiders from eighth in the Big 12 in 2009, to winning back-to-back conference titles in 2012 and 2013. He also helped guide Tech to the school’s first-ever bids to the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and 2013.
“When you have a family with five children, at the time five school-aged children, you don’t want to move your family just to move your family,” said Chapman. “I didn’t want to make the move just to make another one after that. I’d promised my wife and my children that the next move we made would be somewhere we thought we could set roots and be there for awhile.”
When his dream job at Kansas became available, Chapman kept to his word and pursued the position. In June 2013, his hope became a reality when he was named the leader of the Jayhawk program.
Upon his arrival in Lawrence, Chapman quickly made the statement that he was here to stay. During his inaugural season (2013-14) the Jayhawks went 12-12 overall, including an eight-match win streak to open spring play. At the end of the following season, it was evident Chapman was recruiting not only talented players to his roster, but a standout assistant coach as well – Caroline Lilley.
“I recruited her to come here with the hopes that she would see what I saw in how special of a program this could be and the opportunity to be a key piece of that and help build this with me,” said Chapman. “That’s what has happened. She’s helped build the program and the players on this team. I tell her all the time, she doesn’t work for me, she works with me. We have a partnership. I think we work well together and can lead this team in the right direction.”
Before signing on at Kansas in May of 2015, Lilley had spent the previous two seasons as an assistant coach at Gonzaga and one at Purdue as a volunteer assistant. She spent her college days playing at Kentucky during her freshman and sophomore years and then at Georgia Tech as a junior and senior.
During her collegiate career, Lilley was ranked in both singles and doubles with highs of No. 67 and No. 6, respectively. She left Georgia Tech with the second-best doubles winning percentage of any player. Lilley tallied an impressive 38-17 record, including a 20-7 mark in dual-match play, for a 69.1 winning percentage.
“Todd gave me a call and we talked throughout the spring before I came,” said Lilley. “Just about the position as well as philosophies, values, morals, what type of leadership qualities he had and what he was looking for, what his program needed, how his strengths could be complemented, how his weaknesses could be complemented. More than anything, it was a philosophical breakdown of what he was looking for and me recognizing that this is a place that I can add value and I’ll be working for someone who I believe has a good value structure in place.”
And add value she did. With the addition of Lilley and three freshmen: Janet Koch, Nina Khmelnitckaia and Anastasia Rychagova, the Jayhawks compiled a 17-8 overall record, including a 6-3 ledger in Big 12 play, in the 2015-16 season. That mark placed Kansas tied for second in the league standings and earned the program a NCAA Tournament berth for the first time in 17 years.
“When I got here four and a half years ago I didn’t know how long it (NCAA Tournament bid) would take,” said Chapman. “I believed that it could happen. I believed I could surround myself with staff members and players who would help us achieve these things and get the program back on the map. I don’t think you ever know the timetable because a lot of things have to fall into place. I can tell you, with my mentality, my goal was the very first year. It’s a process for sure and if you really commit, then it will happen in time.”
For Chapman and his Kansas team, the bid came during his third year of coaching. The three freshmen each had an outstanding year, showing the skills they had brought to the program and could continue to improve upon.
Moscow, Russia, native Rychagova tallied an overall singles record of 26-9, including 15-5 in spring play, all from the No. 1 position. She also went 28-6 in doubles during her freshman campaign. Rychagova’s success was noticed both within in the conference and nationally. She was named Big 12 Freshman of the Year, Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) Central Region Rookie of the Year and Big 12 Player of the Week (March 16 and February 3). Rychagova was also named All-Big 12 First Team and to the Big 12 All-Freshman Team.
“We got so lucky with our freshman class,” said Rychagova. “I would never admit that I was a big part of the success, but it’s a nice feeling that as soon as we came here, the program started to turn around. From being an unranked team to making a NCAA appearance in such a short time, it feels good.”
Khmelnitckaia, also from Moscow, joined her Russian teammate on the Big 12 All-Freshman Team. She posted a 24-12 singles mark, including going 13-8 in dual-match play. Coming from Durbanville, South Africa, Koch finished the season with an overall singles record of 21-13, with spring play accounting for a 13-8 mark. The pair posted a 15-10 ledger in doubles after competing together during their freshman year.
“They’re definitely the core of our program,” said Lilley. “Those three came in and were immediately huge contributors in both singles and doubles, but also in how they work. Every single day they brought, and still bring, consistent energy, attitudes, competitiveness and intensity to practice.”
Although they came in ready to work, some puzzles take time to put the pieces together. As the trio spent more time around each other and the coaches, everything began to click.
“Accountability is another piece they have started to embrace,” said Lilley. “Holding one another, holding themselves, accountable and making sure that they’re consistent in how they act so they can help other people become consistent as well. It’s been really fun to watch them grow and rewarding to watch them develop as people as well.”
At the beginning of the 2017 spring season, Kansas revealed its brand-new, $9 million state-of-the-art facility, the Jayhawk Tennis Center (JTC), where the Jayhawks could continue to improve their game. The new facility features six indoor and six outdoor courts, with lights for matches in the evening, scoreboards at every court and stadium seating both inside and out. The JTC also features men’s and women’s locker rooms, a film room, training room and multiple lounges.
“The facility is great for development, too,” said Lilley. “We have court space whenever we need it. Our girls have somewhere they’re proud to call home. We’re so grateful that the athletic department made that type of investment. But for us, more than anything, it’s somewhere we’re proud of. It’s somewhere where we can start to leave a legacy, break records, set records and take Kansas tennis to a new level.”
Shortly after opening and beginning the spring season, the Jayhawks did just that – set records. Kansas earned a program-high No. 14 ranking in the ITA’s top-25 list on February 21, 2017. The honor came after KU defeated three teams ranked in the top-50, including a 4-3 win over North Carolina State (16), a 4-2 victory against William & Mary (39) and beating in-state rival Wichita State (35), 5-2.
“Is it (rankings) important? It’s definitely important,” said Chapman. “Rankings are the things people talk about. They’re buzzworthy, but they’re not things that I focus on. When you start focusing on those, that’s when you’re in trouble.”
Instead, Chapman and Lilley chose to focus on the culture of their Kansas tennis team. The duo has built the program around controlling its controllables. Meaning, being the best you can be at the things you can control – effort, attitude, energy, competitiveness and how good of a teammate you are.
“Every single day, you may not play your best tennis, but you can bring your best effort, energy and attitude,” said Chapman. “You can choose to be competitive both mentally and physically and you can be a great teammate. Those are things that are in your control every single day and have nothing to do with winning a tennis point or hitting a tennis shot. It has nothing to do with how your opponent is playing. Those are things we can bring every day to everything we do. That’s the culture of this program.”
By building that culture for his team, Chapman led the Kansas women’s tennis team to a second NCAA Tournament. The 2017 bid marked the first time the Jayhawks had been invited in back-to-back years since 1996-99.
“Freshman year we just kind of took the results and saw how good we could be,” said Koch. “Then, sophomore year we had to work toward that again. We knew what we needed to do to get to there again. At that point, the dynamic of the team changed. We started working harder, pushing each other and being more responsible off the court. We knew that everything we did would influence how we performed on the court.”
Now, in the middle of their third season under the guidance of Chapman and Lilley, the Jayhawks’ performance on the court has been one for the books. Going into the fall season, Rychagova, at No. 35, was the only Kansas player ranked on the singles chart.
All three juniors opened the 2017-18 season with an impressive fall stint. Rychagova posted an outstanding 10-2 record, including an 8-1 mark against ranked individuals. Her only two losses came to the eventual champions of both the Riviera/ITA Women’s All-American Championships, where she claimed the title of champion in the main draw consolation bracket, and the Oracle ITA National Fall Championships.
Koch tallied a 9-4 fall singles mark and won three-straight matches at the ITA Central Regional before falling to the nation’s No. 65 player in the Round of 16. Khmelnitckaia ended the fall at 7-3 in singles, also being knocked out of the ITA Central Regional in the Round of 16. Paired with Rychagova in doubles, the duo sat at a 7-2 record when the fall came to a close.
When the final fall rankings came out on November 15, Kansas had posted yet another program first – having four players ranked individually, including the No. 1-ranked singles player in the nation, Rychagova. Koch followed at No. 90, senior-transfer Despoina Vogasari landed at No. 94 after a 9-7 singles record, and Khmelnitckaia rounded out the Jayhawks at No. 112, receiving her first-ever career nod to the list.
“We had the number one player in the country, three others ranked individually and a doubles team nationally ranked,” said Chapman. “We have had some success, but I believe the best is in front of us if we continue to do things the right way. I don’t think we’ve hit our high-water mark. I’ll be disappointed. I won’t feel like I’ve led the program in the right way if this is the best we can do, (and) then I won’t feel like I’ve done my job.”
Rychagova and Khmelnitckaia also found their names in the doubles rankings, placing No. 38 out of 60 teams across the nation.
“Bringing Kansas tennis back to what it used to be is really exciting and honorable,” said Khmelnitckaia. “It’s exciting to get out there every day, especially this year because I think we could be something special.”
A special year seems to be a common outlook throughout the team.
“I would probably say this for every year I’ve been here, but I feel like we’ve gotten to this point where I’m so excited about our team,” said Rychagova. “This year should be special with all of the girls we have. I think this is the strongest we’ve ever been, especially having eight players. I’m excited to see where our program can go, how much success we can have and what we can accomplish for Kansas tennis.”
With only four of 20 matches completed in dual play so far this spring, the opportunities for Kansas (2-2) are endless.
“I think everything we have puts us in a good position (to be successful),” said Chapman. “Now it’s up to us what we do with it. If we sit and rest on our accomplishments, then we won’t be able to achieve the things that are possible. If we build confidence off of our accomplishments and continue working and believing in the process, then the sky is the limit.”
Currently, the Jayhawks have received votes to be ranked in the ITA’s top-25 list. As of the February 7, 2018, singles and doubles release, Rychagova was the only Kansas player to land a spot, moving from No. 1 to No. 2 in the nation.
“Our goal is to compete for championships,” said Chapman. “Whether that’s on a conference or national level and in both team and individually. There are so many things out there that we hope to achieve, but that is through the work we’ll be putting in on a daily basis.”
Two NCAA Tournament appearances. One doubles Individual NCAA Tournament appearance. ITA Central Region Coach of the Year. ITA Central Region Rookie of the Year. Big 12 Freshman of the Year. Big 12 Newcomer of the Year. The No. 1-ranked player in the nation. All since 2015.