Missouri tennis players bond after transferring to MU

Thursday, October 8, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 1:17 a.m. CDT, Thursday, October 8, 2009

COLUMBIA — Seniors Kristen Bleakley and Sofia Ayala didn’t always call the Missouri tennis team home. MU is the second and final stop in both players' collegiate careers after stints with other Division I teams; however, the road to the Tigers’ lineup was a different one for both players.

Ayala decided to transfer from the University of Alabama after her sophomore season after the Alabama training staff misdiagnosed a broken ankle. When Ayala broke her ankle, the trainer thought it was only a sprain, scheduling Ayala for a week of physical therapy instead of a doctor appointment.

“It made it (my ankle) worse,” Ayala said. “I told them, ‘If you’re going to do that and not going to take me to a doctor, I’m transferring.’ So once that happened, I’m gone.”

Ayala said she had no hard feelings toward the team or the coach, but it was a situation that she wasn’t going to get past. The coach granted her release, and she was free to look at new schools, deciding on MU.

“It was negligence,” Ayala said.

MU coach Blake Starkey said that Ayala is a great competitor and an integral part of the team.

“She has done nothing but get better and better,” he said. “She's been a big addition for us the entire time she’s been here.”

Bleakley transferred after her junior season from North Carolina State University, deciding that MU was a better institution to earn her degree, and it is only a short drive away from her home. Bleakley was born and raised in Kansas City, Kan., where she won a Kansas state title trifecta. She won a team title (2004), a single's title (2005) and a double's title (2006). 

“I can just drive home anytime I want right now, so it’s nice,” Bleakley said.

Starkey said MU recruited Bleakley out of juniors, so when it didn’t work out for her at North Carolina State, Missouri was one of the first to extend an invitation to join the team.

“We told her, ‘Hey, we’d really love to have you,’” Starkey said. “She’s just a great kid. I think she’s really happy to be a little closer to home. I know she feels really great about being at Mizzou. She’s at the place she wants to be.”

While Ayala was able to play her next season, Bleakley had to sit out her first season with the Tigers because her former coach didn’t grant her release by the deadline. The experience was hard for Bleakley, but it provided motivation for her, too.

“It sucked, but I learned a lot from it,” Bleakley said. “I grew as a person from it, so it just makes me want to grind even harder this season and next season.”

Ayala said watching a teammate sit out a season was tough, especially since she was a transfer too. She gave Bleakley advice and talked her through the season.

“We have to be patient and go through the season sitting down, and then you’ll be able to travel with us,” Ayala recalled telling Bleakley. “She adapted pretty well, she handled it pretty well, and now she’s on the team, and she’s doing amazing.”

Bleakley had not met Ayala before she came to Missouri, but knowing that there was another player on the roster who transferred made her transition much easier.

Freshman Andrea Lewis is Bleakley’s double partner, and she thinks that sitting out a season was not a waste for Bleakley. She says that the year off has not added any rust, but has actually made her a stronger player and made her transition to easier.

“You would never know that this was her first season out to play (for the Tigers)," Lewis said. “She is easy for me to come in with. She shows me how do it (adjust to the game).”

Ayala and Bleakley used transferring as a way to bond. When comparing their new team to their previous ones, they always came to the same conclusion: Missouri was the right place for them to be.

“I love it,” Bleakley said. “This team is awesome.”

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