Kara Hickey was scared.
Alongside teammate and sister, Cheryl, the Rock Bridge doubles team needed a win to seal a state championship match against St. Joseph’s Academy. They lost 6-1, 6-1, and the match and the title 5-4.
Coach Ben Loeb remembers his freshman buckling in the spotlight of the 2001 match.
“In the team state final, when we were playing St. Joseph Academy, and the best player of all time, Kiki Stastney, was on the other side of the net in doubles, Kara was completely intimidated,” he said. “Kara just could not hold up to being on the same court with the best player of all time.”
“I felt really intimidated and I remember being really nervous against her,” Kara says now.
The four-year span of a high school career might not seem like a long time, but Kara has come a long way from that day.
Kara led Rock Bridge on Thursday in its failed attempt at a third straight team state title. The Bruins fell to rival St. Joseph 5-4.
Kara will move on to today’s individual competition and try to become the first singles champion to come out of Columbia. With three doubles titles, she would become the third four-time medalist in school history, and the first since her sister.
Kara’s athleticism has never been in question. She entered high school with a solid tennis background, picking up the game at age 7. By the time she was 10, Kara began to drop some of the other sports she had participated in to play competitive tennis.
Her dad, Keith Hickey, was instrumental in introducing his daughter to the game.
“I always enjoyed playing tennis with them (Kara and Cheryl),” Keith Hickey said. “I didn’t know at the start that that would be the sport they would be really interested in. You always kind of hope, but it wasn’t necessarily going to be that way. But they enjoyed it a lot, and it’s been a good run.”
Cheryl went to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy after high school. This semester she is playing for Army. In their youth, the sibling connection gave the Hickey sisters ample opportunities to play.
“It was easy to get on the court because you’d be like ‘Hey you want to go hit?’” Hickey said. “She was definitely a better player when I was younger, so it was good to always be able to practice with someone that was that much better than me.”
Once she took to the courts, Kara never stopped. Despite the opportunity, and ability to play other sports, tennis and track are the only two she stuck with in high school.
“I chose tennis because I just thought it was the most rewarding,” she said. “It’s challenging; it’s a good opportunity to discover myself. There’s a lot of life lessons you learn when you play tennis.”
The lesson from her freshman year might be the most important. Kara and her sister Cheryl came back to win the individual doubles state championship two days later, but Kara still had considerable strides to make.
“She’s made more progress in becoming a mentally tough competitor than I thought she would,” Loeb said. “She’s improved by leaps and bounds, and deserves credit for gaining that type of inner strength and competitive spirit to go along with her physical talent.”
Loeb said while some people are born with this skill, others must bring it out in themselves. He credits her for working to do that. Keith Hickey says he thinks Loeb has done a lot to advance her attitude.
“Coach Loeb has been unreal in helping her,” Keith said. “He helped Cheryl too, but he probably has had even more impact on Kara than Cheryl.
“Cheryl came into it tougher mentally; Kara has developed that, and I think a lot of that has come from interactions with coach Loeb. She really enjoys the team situation, and he’s nurtured her along.”
The team component is what drives Kara. When she talks about her accomplishments, she consistently drifts back to her team, and their successes before her own.
“It’s on me (in singles),” Kara said. “I’m not having to worry about letting down another person. In doubles there’s a lot of weight on both our shoulders not to let down the other person. In singles if I lose, I lose.”
She hasn’t done much losing at all in singles this year. Her only loss of the season came to the defending Kansas state singles champion, Kirsten Bleakley. She turned around the next day and beat Bleakley in a rematch.
Kara’s closest match in her 27-1 season came at the Great Eight against Bleakley’s cousin, Erin Bleakley. Down a set with the team duel knotted at 4, Kara came back to win the second set and the match in a tiebreaker, giving Rock Bridge the tournament.
That’s just the type of situation Kara has come to enjoy.
“I think I’ve been dealing with pressure better,” she said. “Pressure actually motivates me now to do better and compete hard. The main thing is you have to keep out all of the thoughts. It’s hard to not let thoughts creep in your mind about how tired you are, or ‘I missed that shot’, or ‘I have to come back’. You have to just block it all out when you play.”
Kara plans to play tennis in college. Right now she describes her recruitment as open. It is a decision she says is a sad one, but necessary to prepare her tennis for the next level.
“It’s hard not to look back and say, you know, ‘this is it, the end is coming up soon,’ and thinking how I’m not going to be able to play high school tennis ever again is kind of sad. But then again looking at the next step is exciting too,” Kara said of her future.
Loeb knows that this end is near, but thinks Kara has a little unfinished business left.
“Kara, with or without a singles state title, I still think she’s one of the better we’ve had in Missouri, and arguably the best to come out of Columbia,” Loeb said. “If she can win a state title I think that will just add more to support that argument that she’s the best ever (from Columbia). I think Kara has a real good shot at it.”