Missouri women’s tennis head coach Blake Starkey has heard many reasons why his team finished next to last this spring in the Big 12 Conference, with a record of 10-14 (2-10, Big 12). He has even said them himself at points throughout the season: the Tigers played 7 of 11 conference matches on the road with mostly underclassmen on the roster.
But now, looking back on a season where Missouri let so many chances for big wins slip away, including the team’s most recent first round exit against Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament, Starkey says these reasons are excuses, something he doesn’t like himself or his players making.
When you look at the numbers, he said, there are a lot more bright spots than the win and loss columns indicate. The future holds promise for the Tigers, who will return six of seven players next year, and Starkey knows a lot of work will need to be done to turn that promise into wins.
“I’m going to have some really specific goals for next season,” he said. “I don’t want a repeat of this.”
Starkey said that especially toward the end of conference play, it felt like he was watching the same match over and over; the Tigers would win the doubles point, win at No. 5 and No. 6 singles, and lose at No. 1 through 4.
Missouri was 6-6 in the doubles point against Big 12 opponents and a combined 29-17 at the bottom two singles spots.
Statistics like those remind Starkey that this season was better in comparison to recent years, especially for the younger members.
“This was a vastly better team than we’ve had in a while,” he said.
Freshman Maureen Modesto made the top 15 in Missouri’s all-time list of singles wins in a year with a 23-14 record, playing mostly No. 4 singles. Freshman Kaitlyn Ritchie also made it to No. 11 on Missouri’s all time doubles wins in a year with 24 victories. She and doubles partner, junior Jessica Giuggioli, finished 13-6 in doubles during the spring.
Also, junior Sofia Ayala, whose extra year of eligibilty guarantees her two more seasons with the Tigers, finished 10-3 playing No. 6 singles. Even freshman Mallory Weber, who won just 8 matches all spring, earned all at her victories at No. 1, which is the most wins the Tigers have had at No. 1 since 2005.
But despite all of these achievements, the Tigers could not put the pieces together, and Starkey said experience has something to do with that.
“They’re young kids, they’re trying as hard as they can,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade this team for anybody, but they’re young.”
Ritchie said that she felt the team had an overall good year despite the disappointing losses and that a year of experience will help.
“We know what it takes now to get past having close matches and actually winning them,” Ritchie said.
Though experience will naturally improve the team, Starkey will test his players even more next season by improving the caliber of its opponents. The Tigers played several matches this season against schools from smaller conferences, but next year some of those teams are being replaced with Big Ten opponents like Purdue and Penn State.
“We’re putting together a schedule that is not forgiving at all,” Starkey said.
Starkey said the reason for the schedule change is to try and challenge the players and prepare them better for conference play.
The Tigers will add more youth next year with incoming freshman Jamie Mera, a five-star recruit out of Tampa, Fla. who lost last Friday in the Class 3A championship of the Florida High School Athletic Association state tournament. Starkey is also in the process of securing another player to join the Tigers in the fall.