COLUMBIA – A look around the Rock Bridge girls tennis team’s practice facilities at Cosmo-Bethel Park make it apparent the sport is a large part of Rock Bridge’s athletic program. Large signs around the complex boast multiple final four appearances and state titles for both the boys and the girls teams, many of which are consecutive.
However, the year 2008 is missing from the girls banners after nine straight appearances in the final four. The team was 12-8 last year after graduating eight of its top 10 players and didn’t make it to state competition. This year, the team is ready to put up another banner and has started its season 18-0. Coach Ben Loeb said he knew this year’s team would be strong, but he has never had an undefeated record at this point in the season in his 15 years of coaching.
Rock Bridge junior Kelsey Kindernecht came back to win at No.
1 singles to lead the Bruins girls tennis team past host Jefferson City
9-0 on Tuesday. Kindernecht won her match 6-7 (5-7), 6-0, (10-8) .
The Bruins improve to 18-0 heading into their Wednesday match against visiting Helias. Jefferson City travels to Smith-Cotton on Thursday.
“We had so many players coming back from last year’s team, and many of them had worked hard at their game and improved since last season,” he said. “So we expected to be better, but to expect to be undefeated at this point, would probably have been asking a lot.”
There are only two members of the current team that were on the Bruins' final four team in 2007. No. 1 Kelsey Kinderknecht and No. 2 Sarah Heeter moved up from No. 5 and No. 6. According to Kinderknecht, despite making it to the state tournament before, her opponents are much more skilled then before.
“It’s totally different,” she said. “I think mentally you have to know that you have to play your best because they’re going to be a lot better and more experienced. When you’re down at the bottom, you never know what you’re going to get, but at the top you know that they’re going to be good tennis players.”
Heeter said that even though she was playing in a lower position, her experience in final four competition has helped her and Kinderknecht lead the team this year.
“Those memories of what it was like to be in a competitive situation like state keep us wanting to go back and re-experience it, and I’m sure other people who have felt the same way do too, and the people who haven’t experienced it want to know what it's like because we talk about how awesome it was,” Heeter said. “The memories of what it was like just keep pushing us forward.”
Despite its past success in postseason competition, Heeter said the team is laid back.
“There’s really no pressure at all because I don’t think anyone realizes that we’re kind of back into it, so we’re just having fun out there,” she said. “It’s not really that we’re worried about winning as much as we are about just having fun, but since it's my last season, we’re trying to do as well as we can.”
So far, the team has beaten five teams it lost to last year, including the defending sectional champions from Kickapoo High School in Springfield. The last time the teams faced each other, Rock Bridge won by one match, which was a tiebreaker. The Bruins are anticipating seeing Kickapoo again in sectional play, which might be their main obstacle to the state tournament.
“They’ve got a great team, and I think we have a great team, and if we play them again, it’s a dual that could go either way, and I think whoever gets it is going to feel great about it, and whoever doesn’t is going to feel let down,” Loeb said.
According to Loeb, another powerhouse the team might face in state competition is defending state champion St. Joseph’s Academy, and he compared beating it to the USA upsetting the Soviet Union in hockey in the 1980 Olympics.
Heeter said she is optimistic about the rest of the Bruins’ season despite these challenges ahead and doesn’t think their winning streak will be ending anytime soon.
“I know our girls can pull it out and I hope we’re just going to keep breezing through,” she said. “I think we’re going to do great so I guess the next big match is if we actually get to the final four. We’re just going to keep fighting until we get as far as we can go.”