No More Wild Card
Gutsy Wildcats tennis team stuns conference stalwarts
By Elizabeth Child
Coaches dream about cultivating teams like this. Players want to play for teams like this. After five years under head coach Ben Hageseth, St. Catherine’s tennis team claimed the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) title — a first in program history — thanks to four returning players and fresh talent.
The 2013 Wildcats team was undefeated in conference play and they broke a pattern in which only three teams — Carleton, Gustavus and St. Thomas — had won MIAC women’s tennis since 1982.
That isn’t what makes the tennis a dream for St. Kate’s team, however. It’s the combination of talent and hard work, plus a secret ingredient that’s hard for any coach or team to consciously create — team spirit. These Wildcats push each other. Moreover, they like each other.
At the start of the season, the Wildcats were ranked fifth in the MIAC by a vote of conference coaches, making their 10–0 record a Cinderella victory. Last year’s champion, Carleton College, was projected to win again, so when the Wildcats faced the Carls in February, a win wasn’t supposed to be in the cards.
Tied 4-4 with one match to finish, it took the whole team to close out the last set and win the season’s closest conference match up.
The concept of “team” can seem elusive when you’re on the court alone. That is, until your Katie teammates start shouting “Vamaonos!” (“let’s go”) from the stands. Maria Koval SP’15 says their team’s rallying cry was much needed when she was the last Katie standing during the nail-bitter against the Carls. Koval had won the first set handily at 6-2, but was in danger of losing a slim lead in the second set and sending the match into a third-set tie-breaker. One of the team’s steadiest players, Koval says, “I didn’t know winning came down to my match, but I had a feeling.”
She heard the cheers growing louder and buckled down, telling herself, “You know how to play tennis.” She came back to win the second set 7-5, and the stands erupted.
The Wildcats would no longer be a wild card. Now they had a target on their back. And they liked it.
In Hageseth’s first year as head coach in 2008–09, the Wildcats won just two conference matches and lost nine. Then Hageseth — who was named the MIAC Women’s Tennis Coach of the Year post-season, for the second straight year — methodically built his team under the radar of the other MIAC teams.
The most successful previous season for St. Kate’s was in 2004, when Coach Eric Stacey guided the team to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III Team Championships, a first in school history for any Wildcat team. (They reached the sweet 16.) But the team lost its momentum the following year after Stacey stepped aside to become St. Catherine’s athletic director.
If beating Carleton was a giant step, denting Gustavus Adolphus College’s tennis dynasty three weeks later with a 6-3 win was a milestone. The Wildcats had never beaten Gustavus. The win may have been sweetest for Hageseth and Stacey, who currently serves as assistant tennis coach.
Rallying a Team
Hageseth was coaching St. Paul Academy’s girls’ tennis team when Stacey recruited him as head coach. “Ben’s done a nice job of adding talent and increasing the competitive level of the team every year,” says Stacey.
The team’s players say they are friends who share the same goals: to constantly improve and win. Six of them live on campus — five in Morrison and one in Rauenhorst Hall. While they’re focused during practice and games, they love to get silly away from the court. For example, singing along with the radio on the way back from matches.
This year’s team includes three new players recruited by Hageseth. Mikinzee Salo SP’16 is a first-year student from Brainerd who transferred in her second semester. “The intensity of this team is exactly what I wanted,” she says. “When the coaches get on me, I know they care.”
Kylie Ketcho EWO’15 is a sophomore from Edina who is studying nursing. She often pairs in doubles with energetic powerhouse Victoria Bravo SP’14, and they were both ranked No. 11 by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA). Bravo is originally from Tuscon, Arizona, and she works as a tennis instructor at Lifetime Fitness.
New and returning players have combined to create something of a dream team. Michaela Burroughs SP’13, the team’s only senior, has played all four years. Back when the team’s losses outweighed its wins she took a chance on St. Kate’s, moving from her hometown of Omaha because, she says, “The coaches were talented and I thought if they had talent, the team would be a success.”
As team captain, she has set a positive tone by sending encouraging message to players before matches and practicing — and playing — with tenacity. That included relentless hitting on the ball machine to convert an inconsistent left-handed forehand into a confident two-handed stroke.
“As much as Ben and Eric support me in my tennis endeavors, they support me in my education,” Burroughs says. “They want me to be as successful in class as I am on the court.” An English and philosophy major, Burroughs has interned for U.S. Senator Al Franken and hopes to pursue a career in public policy.
For Hageseth and Stacey, education and career always come before tennis. Sometimes that stance even means helping players study for tests. For former Wildcat Lauren Beadnell SP’12, it meant encouraging her to leave the team when she received a full scholarship to attend the University of St. Thomas’ dual JD/MBA program. Hageseth told Beadnell she shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to set herself up for a successful career.
All but Burroughs are expected back for another season and they share a team goal of winning a MIAC or ITA tournament next year. Some, like Bravo, are looking farther down the line. “I’d like to be part of a legacy of St. Kate’s tennis that goes on for many years,” she says.