Generally, a college sports team fills its roster with players whom coaches have been recruiting for months or years, leaving maybe one or two spots open for walk-ons.
Stephens College is different.
Although 12 of her 16 players had never played organized tennis before practice began Feb. 18, Stephens coach Lori Towle has confidence that they will be a competitive team this year.
“I think our strength is definitely going to be our athleticism,” Towle said. “They’re all new to the game, learning very quickly and taking on some pretty difficult roles.”
Towle will learn today whether a competitive drive is enough to win when Stephens hosts its first home meet at 4 p.m. against Westminster.
Stephens promotes participation in intercollegiate athletics but cannot give athletic scholarships as a Division III school. This can make it difficult to find experienced athletes.
It also doesn’t help that Towle, who coached full-time at Stephens from 1998-2002, has since become a part-time coach.
Dane Pavlovich, the Stars’ basketball coach, has been given recruiting duties, but finding and keeping quality athletes remains a problem.
“We have students on campus who see tennis as an interest, but not something that they go specifically to college to pursue,” Towle said.
As a result, freshman Kelsey Higgins will be the Stars’ top singles player this season despite not playing her senior year in high school.
“It’s very intimidating,” Higgins said. “I haven’t played competitively in a while, but I’m excited.”
Bea Barton, a senior who will play in the second singles spot and will partner with Higgins in doubles, is the only player who has been on the team for four years.
“It’s interesting having Kelsey as my partner,” Barton said. “She’s one of our first-years, but she’s really good, so it’s a nice pair we have.”
Sophomore Pamela Kelly grabbed Stephens’ only win against Missouri Valley on Wednesday.
Katie Aichholz returns for Stephens after studying in London last year, and Anne Donley, who learned to play last season, is also back for the Stars.
Newcomers Sarah Burris and Lindsy Hively also are set to compete.
Towle said she is pleased with the progress the new players have made in less than a month of practice.
“Just in the two weeks we’ve been practicing there’s been an incredible amount of improvement,” Towle said.
Many players joined the team simply to satisfy a physical education credit, creating different levels of dedication, and making a large amount of turnover an annual occurrence.
Jill Davis, a senior, joined the team so she could classify as a full-time student, but has welcomed the opportunity to play a new sport.
Aichholz, who has not played any tennis since she left the Stephens team two years ago, remembers what it was like to be on a team while knowing little about the sport.
“It was really hard for me,” Aichholz said. “I’d played a lot of other sports, but I’d never played tennis or watched tennis… I was so confused.”
The confusion could end because Stephens is considering switching from Division III to the NAIA. A division change would mean Stephens could give partial scholarships and actively recruit prospective athletes.