Jayhawks Ride Momentum of Strong Fall Season into Spring Dual-Match Play
LAWRENCE, Kan. — Kansas women’s tennis will open its 2016 spring campaign with a boost of momentum after a strong 2015 fall campaign, capped by freshman Anastasiya Rychagova’s appearance at the United States Tennis Association (USTA)/Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships.
The Jayhawks will not field a team whose strength is in numbers as only seven players’ names are listed on the roster, but it is a team bursting with young talent in head coach Todd Chapman’s third season at the helm of the program.
Kansas returns four players from last year’s team that finished sixth in the 2015 Big 12 Conference standings, its highest finish in six seasons. In addition, the Jayhawks added three outstanding players to its roster for the 2016 campaign, Nina Khmelnitckaia, Janet Koch and Rychagova, each of whom figures to see a lot of action in their inaugural collegiate season.
Despite the youth movement, Chapman likes the attitude of his team as it transitions into dual-match play.
“The attitude we approached the fall with was different than the two previous falls,” said Chapman. “We had three new, really talented freshmen and they didn’t know who was supposed to be good along the landscape of collegiate tennis. They just went to play. They did not know who was a good team or a good player so there wasn’t any building up of anyone before they played them. They just competed and that became contagious.”
Even though six of their seven roster spots are filled by underclassmen, the Jayhawks do have one experienced veteran in senior Maria Jose Cardona. The Santiago, Chile, native is coming off an injury that depleted her junior season. Cardona used the fall season to get back into shape for the upcoming grind of dual-match play.
“Maria had a rough spring last year with injuries and wasn’t able to do much in the summer,” said Chapman. “This fall was about trying to get her healthy. I think it was a little harder for her because she wasn’t playing the tennis at the level she wants to play, but she was still a quiet leader.”
A pair of sophomores in Summer Collins and Smith Hinton return to the KU lineup for the spring campaign after using the fall season to continue their growth following a solid freshmen campaign.
Collins, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, started a little slow in the fall, but picked up momentum, posting a 7-6 mark in singles play and a 6-6 ledger in doubles action.
“Summer stayed here all summer and worked extremely hard,” said Chapman. “She went out in her first tournament this fall and did not play well. It was concerning because I did not want her to lose hope. A week later she had a bit of a breakthrough. Then she went to regionals and had a great tournament and followed that up with a great tournament at Texas Tech. For her it was just finally, for whatever reason, everything clicked. It was really fun to watch. There has been a huge elevation in her game from last spring to this fall. She is playing at a completely different level.”
While Collins’ improvement was visible on the scoreboard, Hinton’s development was more focused on how she approached each point. A Raleigh, North Carolina, native, Hinton’s work on her mental side of the game helped lead her to a 9-6 record in singles play, while she posted a 5-6 mark in doubles.
“Smith’s growth came from more from a mentality standpoint,” said Chapman. “She is understanding what she wants to do on the court and not just playing points, she is thinking them. She is using her mind to win points. She had a few losses this fall but they were all really close and to really good players. Even though she had some losses she wishes she could have back, she gained confidence in what she is doing.”
Alexis Czapinski, who did not see any action during the 2015 fall season, is another returning sophomore. Czapinski, who hails from Lawrence, contributed to the Jayhawks’ lineup late during the spring 2015 campaign, forging a 1-8 mark in singles play and a 5-10 ledger in doubles.
Rychagova, who was recently ranked No. 45 in the ITA singles rankings, leads the group of talented freshmen. In just a few short months on campus, she has made her presence felt. The Moscow, Russia, native posted an impressive 11-4 mark in singles play, while also combining with a couple of different Jayhawk teammates to register an 8-3 ledger in doubles action.
In November, Rychagova was the first Jayhawk to be tabbed for the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championships field since the ITA began sponsoring the event in 2005.
“Anastasiya is the hardest worker on our team,” said Chapman. “At the end of the fall she was the best player on our team. To have your best player also be your hardest worker and the most serious about things is a great example for everyone else. She is extremely serious about getting better and developing as a tennis player. She is super competitive so it’s very important to her. She quietly and humbly goes about her business and to me that’s impressive.”
Her fellow freshmen teammates, Khmelnitckaia and Koch, also had stellar moments during the fall season. Khmelnitckaia, another Moscow native, collected double-digit wins as she posted a 10-4 singles mark and collected a 7-5 record in doubles play. Koch, who hails from Durbanville, South Africa, forged an 8-5 ledger in singles action and led all of the Jayhawks with a 9-3 doubles record.
Throughout the 2015 fall season and heading into spring action, Chapman has been pleased with not only his team’s effort, but the chemistry they have created.
“As a group they are pushing each other,” said Chapman. “We are challenging them all to become vocal leaders and not rely on one person because we do have such a young team. That is the goal on a daily basis, to have them get out of their comfort zone as far as what they expect from their teammates and then they can positively affect each other as far as how they approach things. I have been pleased with how they have pushed each other.”
The 2016 schedule, which features 12 home matches, will pose many of its own challenges as 11 of the Jayhawks’ 22 opponents are ranked in the ITA’s Top 75 in its first set of rankings.
“Our schedule allows us to get out and test ourselves right away,” said Chapman. “Arkansas (Jan. 29) and Purdue (Jan. 30) are two teams that are always in the NCAA Tournament, top 50 teams. Conference wise, we finished sixth in the Big 12 last year. We would like to finish in the top four this year. We want to continue to push forward in that area. It won’t be easy because I think the conference is as talented and deep as it has been in a long time, if not ever.”
Despite the challenges of a demanding schedule and a predominantly young squad, Chapman is encouraged by what he has seen out of his team during the fall season and sees many big goals within their reach.
“If we stay healthy I believe we are an NCAA Tournament team and that is our goal,” said Chapman. “We have players who are capable making the individual side of the NCAA Tournament. Those are things that have not been done here in a long time and we are not shying away from that. We have a group that accepts that challenge and that is fun to see.
“That is the end goal. The beginning of the season will be about gaining confidence. We still have three freshmen who have never played in a dual match and until you experience that you really don’t know what it’s about. Hopefully we can gain some competitive confidence under our belt and move forward from there. Our overall goal is to push ourselves and not have any limitations.”
The Jayhawks will hit the courts for the first time in 2016 when they play host to a doubleheader with Nebraska-Omaha (9 a.m.) and Drake (4 p.m.) on Monday, Jan. 18 at the Jayhawk Tennis Center. It will be the first two of 12 home matches for Kansas.
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