Two days before the Big 12 Conference Championship, Yelena Olshanskaya isn’t sure whom Missouri will face in the first round. She knows coach Blake Starkey has told her, but she can’t quite remember.
“I don’t even care who we’re playing, I’m just going to go out there and try,” she said. “We can be playing a No. 1 seed or No. 23 seed; we just have to go out there and do our thing.”
Olshanskaya, a freshman, was named Big 12 Player of the Week on April 21. She won singles and doubles matches to help the Tigers defeat Iowa State and Kansas during their last week of regular-season play. The wins helped Missouri to a 6-5 record, its second straight winning record.
Big 12 championship begins today
The four-day Big 12 championship begins today at the Headington Family Tennis Center in Norman, Okla. No. 6 seed MU faces No. 11 Kansas State at 1:30 p.m.
On March 31, the Tigers defeated the Wildcats 4-3 in Manhattan, Kan.
“We won by the skin of our teeth,” Starkey said. “I think we have a brutal draw, they’re going to fight hard. I just know it’s going to be a tough match.”
If the Tigers win, they will play No. 3 seed Oklahoma at 3 p.m. Friday. Oklahoma has a bye in the first round. MU lost 5-2 to the Sooners on March 6, but was without No. 1 singles player Urska Juric, who was injured.
“We match up great with them, every time the matches are really really tight,” Starkey said. “Maybe the pressure of hosting the Big 12 Tournament could work negatively against them.”
Freshmen looking forward to championship
Olshanskaya and doubles partner Erika Josbena, a freshman, are playing in their first Big 12 championships. After playing for MU since September, they say they know what to except.
“I think that because it’s Big 12s it might feel like a little more pressure, but we’ve met all these teams before,” Josbena said. “We’ve seen how they play, we just need to know how to play and hopefully get rid of the nerves in the first match.”
Olshanskaya has also had the benefit of sister Kristina’s guidance. Kristina Olshanskaya played for Missouri from 1999 to 2003. She holds the school record for career doubles (82-84) and singles (87-61) victories.
“My sister, she told me all about the season, she told me how hard it’s going to be with school, how I need to stay focused and manage my time,” Yelena Olshanskaya said.
Olshanskaya and Josbena count Juric, a senior, among positive influences.
“Coming in and playing against top-caliber players on our team has helped me improve,” Josbena said. “Just playing against people that are that good, you’re obviously going to get better just hitting with them. It’s a nice atmosphere where we’re just going in, we’re having fun no matter what we’re doing.”
Team practices without coaches to relax
Missouri practiced in a more relaxed environment to get ready for conference championships. On Saturday, the team had a player practice without the coaches.
“I think it’s smart of both Blake and our assistant coaches because they know we’re going to play and that we take practices seriously,” Olshanskaya said. “We’re all exhausted, we’ve been playing for nine months, we don’t really have an offseason, so they’re just for us to basically stay in shape.”
In addition to being doubles partners, Josbena and Olshanskaya are roommates. Josbena is from Pennsylvania and Olshanskaya from Los Angeles, but geography seems to be the only difference between them.
“We’re from opposite sides of the country but we pretty much can talk about anything,” Josbena said.
Before school started, Olshanskaya asked Starkey if they could room together because they have similar schedules. As the year winds down, they said they are glad they roomed together.
“We know each others’ personalities,” Olshanskaya said. “A couple people were like, ‘Are you guys sisters?’ because we tend to act the same.”