COLUMBIA — The Missouri tennis team will close out the fall season with the ITA Central Regional this weekend. Unlike the other two tournaments the Tigers have played in this fall, the team will only send four players.
Selections are made based on performances in tournaments earlier in the fall. Each school in the region is guaranteed at least one at-large entry into the tournament. Missouri coach Blake Starkey is set to accompany senior Sofia Ayala, juniors Mallory Weber and Kaitlyn Ritchie, and sophomore Jamie Mera to Norman, Okla. for the tournament, but Starkey has never favored splitting up the team.
Last year, Starkey decided to send all eight of his players to New Mexico for the ITA Regional Optional, a tournament that usually hosts the players not selected to the main regional.
“I usually like keeping my team together,” Starkey said. “A lot of other teams don’t do that, but you know we’re going back, too.”
Ritchie welcomes the competition and sees the invitation as a personal achievement. She will also be making a trip back to her home state.
“It is definitely something I’m looking forward to, and an accomplishment,” Ritchie said. “Not everybody gets to do it and you have to qualify. So that’s a boost of confidence for me right now. I’m playing against that high of competition, and I was chosen to be in that same place.”
Weber holds the No. 1 spot in the Tigers lineup, but has some different viewpoints than Ritchie.
“I think that it is an accomplishment to get to go down there and play with those types of girls,” Weber said. “But then again, this whole fall, Coach has really prepared us with a lot of good teams and good matches. He’s really prepared us. It is really no different from the competitive standpoint.”
The top two players from the singles tournament will earn berths to the national indoor tournament along with the winning doubles team. With 64 players in the draw, Starkey knows that winning is going to be tough. He said he isn’t expecting it, but he won’t rule it out either.
“You know each team is different,” Starkey said. “The years that we’ve actually won it, I didn’t expect it then, and I don’t expect it now. You just go and play as hard as you can and hope for the best.”
The region recently expanded, adding the Big Ten’s Minnesota and the SEC’s Arkansas, among others. Starkey said the new teams will bring extra competition to make one of the “toughest regions to play in.”
“I like that it isn’t just teams in the Big 12,” Ritchie said. “But it’s teams from all over the area, so we get a lot of diversity in who we play.”