The Tabor College women’s tennis team endured a disappointing end to the 2016 season. After starting KCAC play 3-0, Tabor went 1-4 after that to finish fifth in the conference, one place from qualifying for the tournament.
“We lost three 5-4 matches, and if we’d have won the last match that we lost 5-4, we would’ve been in the top four,” coach John Ruder said. “If we could’ve got in the tournament, I think we could’ve made it to the finals, but it just didn’t work out.”
It was a learning experience that will provide motivation for the Bluejays to give their best effort every time out on the court.
“I think they learned something from last year because when they went to that last match, that was the best match they played,” Ruder said. “They played like their backs were against the wall and they really played well. We’ve been talking about, ‘You’ve got to play every match like your back’s against the wall because if you don’t, it will be.’”
Last year’s team was admittedly young, and with essentially everyone returning in 2017, Ruder looks for that experience to pay dividends.
“We didn’t have any seniors (last year), and my top players were all sophomores,” he said. “This year, we’re a little more experienced and have a better idea of what’s ahead and what they need to do.”
Headlining Tabor’s list of returners is junior Jessica Emoto, who ranks first in the ITA Central Region and seventh nationally.
Emoto has represented the Bluejays at the ITA National Championships both years, most recently last October, where, after winning the Regional Championships with a 5-0 record, Emoto went 1-2 in the ITA Oracle Cup to finish seventh overall.
She achieved NAIA All-American recognition from the ITA in women’s singles and was a unanimous selection as KCAC Most Valuable Player.
In her first season with the Bluejays, Emoto was named KCAC Freshman of the Year and ITA Central Rookie of the Year.
In the Bluejays’ season opener at Newman Feb. 11, Emoto picked up Tabor’s only win—a 7-5, 6-2 victory in No. 1 singles.
“She’s mentally strong and played a tough match against the Newman girl and beat her,” Ruder said. “I think she’s going to be real solid for us.”
Ruder said he expects the KCAC—especially teams like McPherson and Ottawa—to provide more competition at the top this season.
“She will have a little more competition this year than the last few years, but she’ll play real well,” Ruder said. “There’s no doubt in my mind. She’s just mentally that way. She’s very focused in everything. Great student, great leader, very strong Christian young lady. (I’m) very proud of her.”
Emoto will play No. 1 singles with sophomore Mandi Hiett.
“(Mandi’s) really good at the net,” Ruder said. “Good serve, and so we feel like by the time we hit conference season, that’s going to be a real solid doubles team. With Jessica’s experience, and Mandi’s athleticism, I think that we will have a strong No. 1 (team).
Sophomore Naima Mexsen returns at No. 2 singles. She played through injury last year, and Ruder expects her to be improved.
“She seems to be 100 percent now,” he said. “Her game’s coming up, so I think she’s going to compete real well at No. 2 for us.”
Junior Heidi Klaassen will fill the No. 3 spot.
“She’s just mentally tough and a real competitor,” Ruder said. “Her matches are grind it out. She’s not a big girl, but she gets lots of balls back.”
Mexsen and Klaassen will play No. 2 doubles this season.
“We moved Heidi from No. 1 doubles with Jessica to with Naima at No. 2 because we felt like that would give us a more solid No. 2 with those two there, “Ruder said. “We think that we’re going to be able to compete at both those doubles spots real well in our conference with those two there.”
The rest of the women’s lineup is still fluid, Ruder said. Seniors Kiana Fujioka and Celeste Worthy will fill No. 4 and No. 5 singles and will comprise the No. 3 doubles team.
In contention for the starting nod at No. 6 singles are Hiett, junior Lindsey Stroud and freshman Tessa Isaac, giving the Bluejays depth they’ve lacked in previous years.
“Mandi’s a better doubles player of the three, but singles play, they’re all real close,” Ruder said. “One day one beats one, one day the other one wins. It’s a matter of who’s on that day. They’re going to give us good depth.”
Ruder expects that depth to lend itself to good things this season.
“Depth-wise, we’re in better shape than we’ve been in other years because if somebody’s sick or somebody’s hurt, as long as it’s not our No. 1, we can pretty much bump people up and still be in the running with everybody in our conference,” he said.
Ruder’s goal for the women’s team is to finish among the top four in the conference to qualify for the KCAC tournament.
“If you can get to the tournament, anything can happen,” he said. “Of course, we want to take first.”