After wrapping up their regular season with a 6-1 match victory over rival Kansas this past weekend in Manhattan, senior Petra Niedermayerova and her Kansas State teammates are set to open the Big 12 Tennis Championships on Thursday against West Virginia in Fort Worth, Texas.
“Getting that win allowed us to get some confidence back,” K-State interim head coach Liz Ullathorne said. “Not only the win, but the way they did it. A lot of them played some really good tennis.”
In what has been a season featuring both extreme highs and lows, K-State opened 2014 by reeling off a 5-1 start, featuring wins in each of the Wildcats’ first four home matches at the new Mike Goss Tennis Stadium.
K-State went 6-6 in it’s non-conference schedule, including a 4-3 home win over then-No. 32 Wichita State on March 8.
For the Wildcats, especially Niedermayerova and junior Amina St. Hill, just having a place to call home has been a source of pride for a squad that spent the last five seasons playing its home matches 17 miles away in Wamego.
“Before, we really didn’t have a home,” Niedermayerova said. “This facility is right on campus. It’s beautiful, purple, and we’ve got the huge scoreboard so everybody can follow the matches. It’s why we are starting to get fans. It makes a huge difference to have people standing behind you, supporting you.”
Not only has K-State’s new home helped provide a true home-court advantage on match day, the ease of practice availability and the quality of the facility has made training profoundly more productive.
“It was so far away,” said Ullathorne, who played in Wamego three times as a player with Texas Tech. “They didn’t get to practice where they played, which I think is huge. Now we have this and they’re practicing on match courts.”
St. Hill agreed with her coach.
“It really makes us want to work hard to play better,” she said. “Knowing that the school is putting all this money into the facility. I cannot be more happy than I am right now, because I’m really thankful to practice and play on these courts.”
After feeling exiled for a majority of their careers, truly appreciating the Wildcats’ current situation is something that Niedermayerova and St. Hill have stressed to their young teammates.
“It’s really hard for them to understand,” Niedermayerova said. “Because unless you lived through it, you really don’t know the difference.
“There are so many adjustments they’re having to make in college with the practice and conditioning, but to play in this beautiful facility just makes it better.”
Niedermayerova said the freshmen are beginning to understand.
That young, inexperienced roster — which includes six freshmen — and the sudden midseason retirement of former head coach Steve Bietau helped contribute to a season of struggles for the Wildcats.
K-State won its first two Big 12 matches at West Virginia and Iowa State under Ullathorne, but fell into a tailspin when it lost its next seven matches before finally breaking the skid against the Jayhawks.
Niedermayerova, No. 51 in the ITA singles rankings and a two-time All-American who holds K-State career records for singles wins (103) and doubles wins (74), has tried to carry the load. The same can be said for St. Hill. Both players are 5-4 in Big 12 singles matches this season.
Ullathorne said that while their accomplishments are notable, their leadership has been instrumental to their young teammates.
“It’s great for them, because we have so many freshmen,” she said. “They need someone to lead them, especially five of them being foreign like them. Petra and Amina have done a great job mentoring these freshmen.”
The two friends have also formed a bond on the doubles side, earning a 9-5 overall record as a tandem.
“With me and Amina being the only upperclassmen, we were trying to figure out things before the season,” Niedermayerova said. “That made our bond even stronger. We didn’t expect to play doubles together and at the beginning we thought it was going to be a disaster, but our chemistry has gotten really good.
“We really understand each other on the court.”
The Wildcats open the Big 12 first round against the Mountaineers on Thursday at 10 a.m.