The 2019 Concordia University women’s tennis team set a new standard for a program still seeking its first ever trip to the NAIA national championships. A berth to nationals no longer seems so far out of reach after what this group of Bulldogs accomplished this spring. The only discontentment at this stage is knowing just how close they came to a trip to Mobile, Alabama.
It was an unforgettable ride for a squad with some unique dynamics. New head coach David DeSimone jumped on board after the season had already started and dove into the role alongside graduate assistants Javier Moreno and Nikita Kostikov.
DeSimone thoroughly enjoyed what he saw from this team during the GPAC tournament run. Said DeSimone after the GPAC championship match defeat, “There was a lot of really good stuff going on out there on the court – a lot of encouragement from each other. We’ve been building towards that throughout the whole season. It was a really fun atmosphere and environment. I wouldn’t have it any other way than to have the match end with those two (Marlene Maier and Kelsey Brown) battling it out at No. 1.”
With GPAC postseason victories over Midland and College of Saint Mary, the 2019 Concordia women’s tennis team broke the program record for wins in a season with a 15-6 overall mark. Somehow all of the pieces came together. Maier transferred in from NCAA Division I Alcorn State University and immediately provided a steadying force at the top of the lineup. From top to bottom, the Bulldogs may have had the most balanced lineup of any squad in the GPAC.
Maier claimed a program record 17 singles wins at the No. 1 spot and everyone else seemed to fall in line. Concordia showed resilience in bouncing back from early season defeats and carried on through a campaign that included triumphs over opponents from the NAIA and NCAA Division II and III levels. The most satisfying of all those victories had to be the 5-3 conference semifinal decision over College of Saint Mary, which avenged a regular season loss.
Said junior Kirsten Wagner, “I am so proud to be a part of this team and this record-breaking season that I can barely explain it. It's my third year here so seeing the impact past players have had on the team along with the influence of Coach Desimone and GA Javy, I am not at all surprised by what we were able to accomplish. What makes me the most proud is the way we were able to brush off some of our tough losses and use that to get better during practice and to really push to be the best we could be. I love my team, and I couldn't imagine playing anywhere else.”
Wagner notched a win at No. 4 singles in the championship match with GPAC regular season champion Hastings, which entered the postseason having made trips to nationals in 2017 and 2018. What played out inside the YMCA in Fremont, Neb., was the most intense competition most Bulldog players had ever been part of. With the team score tied, 4-4, it all came down to Maier at No. 1. She was edged in a fiercely competitive three-set battle.
“The GPAC championship match was one of the most intense ones I’ve experienced,” Maier said. “Going down 1-2 in doubles was tough, but we were still so close to winning by coming back in singles. Having several of the singles matches going to a third set proves that the match could have gone either way, and it wasn’t decided until the very last point. It is difficult handling such a close loss, but in the end I am so proud of the entire team for the efforts and the result we ended up with.”
While Maier typically cleaned up at the No. 1 singles spot this season, Concordia often blitzed its opponents in the back half of the lineup. With the fine work of the likes of Wagner, junior Angela Bell and sophomore Allison Marshall, the Bulldogs produced season win totals of 14 at No. 4, 16 at No. 5 and 16 at No. 6.
A native of Woodbury, Minn., Marshall showed her mettle by fighting back from a 4-1 deficit in the third set of her match against Hastings. Her grit in the GPAC final was representative of a team that was determined not to let its season end.
“Even though I was down 4-1, I was determined to do everything I could to stay in that match and win it,” Marshall said. “I just kept getting one more ball back and put pressure on her to end the point. I felt like if I could keep getting the ball back, eventually I would win the point and that started happening. I was winning more and more points and continued to come back. Once I got to 4-4, I felt like the momentum was mine and I just needed to finish it. Fortunately, I was able to do just that.”
It's difficult to describe just what emotions were felt as the championship match raged on. DeSimone called it the most exciting match he’s ever been part of as either a young coach or collegiate player himself. Wagner did her best to capture what those emotions were like.
“Once I got off the court from my singles is when the emotions really started hitting me hard,” Wagner said. “It was so nerve-wracking to watch my teammates playing their matches, especially those matches that were in third sets. I remember just sitting there, hand over my mouth, just going crazy, I couldn't sit still. Every point was giving me a heart attack.”
Eventually, the heartache of such a close championship defeat will give way to the pride of knowing what was accomplished and the work it took to get there. Added Maier, “I am incredibly proud to be a part of this team.”
DeSimone is looking forward to a full offseason now to work with a team with real momentum, coming off its first GPAC championship match appearance since 2011. The program will graduate Maier and Katelinn Wurm, but will welcome back aforementioned lineup regulars in Bell, Marshall and Wagner, as well as Claudia Miranda Viera, who played at No. 2 singles. The seniors will not be easily replaced, but this season changed the game. Winning a GPAC title is no longer an unrealistic goal.
Says Marshall, “I feel like we have unfinished business. We wanted to make it to nationals and came one step short of that. I feel like next year we will still have a solid team and a chance to make it to nationals.”