COLUMBIA — For Missouri tennis head coach Blake Starkey, there was a moment at the Green Tennis Center on Friday when it looked like his team could beat the No. 31 team in the nation. Junior Jessica Giuggioli had taken the first set from the No. 75 player in the nation, Elze Potgieter, on the No. 1 court, freshman Mallory Weber came back with some smart play to force a third set at No. 2, and freshman Maureen Modesto was way ahead of Texas A&M senior Tiffany Clifford at No. 4 singles. The Tigers were doing what Starkey had been pressing them about all week: putting themselves in position to win.
While Missouri, now 9-9 (1-5, Big 12) after the 5-2 loss to the Aggies, only saw Modesto win out of those three opportunities, for Starkey it was the return of a competitive attitude that had been missing in the team’s recent losses that made the match an important and positive one for the team’s progress.
Starkey knows that it’s not likely the Tigers will win matches against teams of A&M’s caliber, but he’s been trying hard to get his players be more competitive against those teams, even if getting points against them is much harder than against unranked competition.
“We’re really focused on just competing as hard as possible,” Starkey said.
Starkey says that he demands and expects his players to compete their hardest, something he needed to remind them of this week. He said that Friday’s match proved they got the message.
Nearly the entire Tiger lineup was competitive. In addition to Giuggioli, Weber, and Modesto, freshman Kaitlyn Ritchie was leading at times in both sets that she lost at No. 5, and junior Sofia Ayala won her second consecutive match since being placed back into the lineup at Baylor last weekend.
Ayala, who defeated A&M’s Stephanie Davidson 6-3, 7-5, said she is excited to be back in the lineup.
“It was killing me just sitting on the bench just looking at my teammates and not being on the court,” she said.
Earlier in the season, Ayala stayed out of the lineup due to her tendency to over-hit the ball. Ever since Starkey told her to focus more on keeping the ball in the court than hitting hard shots, Ayala has found nothing but success.
Starkey has noticed that tendency with many of the players. Talented teams like A&M and Baylor wear the Tigers down because they can easily return most of the Tigers’ hard shots. By taking too many of those shots in recent matches, the Tigers stopped focusing on just keeping the ball in play and staying in the match. What Starkey saw Friday was his players moving back toward taking smarter shots.
By taking those shots and giving themselves an opportunity to win, the Tigers are also finding confidence and proof that they can compete with the talent of the Big 12.
“The first set was 6-4 and I won it, so that means I can do this,” Giuggioli said. “I just have to do it long enough.”
Starkey said that his players needed that moment, the ability to see that they are talented enough to create opportunities to win. Tomorrow morning the Tigers will have another chance to do just that against an even better team in No. 19 Texas, The match will be the Tigers last home match of the season.