Road to League Nationals
During a team meeting the night before the start of the USTA Missouri Valley League Section Championships, Lori Hunt could sense her squad was dealing with some nerves. It was an appropriate feeling for a group — sans one player from Louisiana — who had never made a sectionals appearance before.
The Louisiana player told her teammates to relax and have fun. The team did just that — even sprinkling in a trip to WashU’s campus to hold a pep rally near an Olympic rings sculpture, complete with motivational speeches and cheers — en route to representing Springfield as the first-ever USTA Missouri 3.0 women’s team to compete at sectionals.
“It was just a neat experience,” said Hunt, the team’s captain. “For us to say we were from Springfield — when usually there’s no one represented from Springfield — made us feel very proud. It was a good learning experience. I learned a lot. I think the players learned a lot. If we are able to do it again next year, we’ll definitely be better prepared than what we were this year.”
While Hunt’s 18 & Over team went 1-4 at the round-robin sectional tournament hosted at Dwight Davis Tennis Center in St. Louis on August 5-8, most everyone on the 10-person squad had at least one individual victory. Top singles player Kelly Hayes was a tournament standout, going 5-0 — which included some come-from-behind victories — and earning a sportsmanship award.
Hunt’s team predominantly played with eight players throughout the league’s regular season, but she recruited a couple more individuals in preparation for sectional action. It was still a tall order playing against more experienced opponents who had larger rosters.
“It was hot and humid. We didn’t have any subs. We were playing a lot of people who had fresh legs, where every one of us had to play every match,” Hunt said.
“We just tried to make the best of it. I’ve got a Facebook screenshot that says ‘captain’s log.’ It is to the effect that we’re still all champions because we looked good. Our uniforms and shirts were nice. We were still champions even though we had four losses there.”
That USTA Missouri had a 3.0 team at all competing in sectionals was a major accomplishment multiple years in the making. An assistant director at the Cooper Tennis Complex in Springfield long hoped to form a 3.0 women’s league, but it never materialized. For the league to finally have its breakthrough this year after spending one season as a flex league last year, it took the work and perseverance of volunteer Ann Vogel.
According to Hunt, Vogel knew there was interest from 3.0 players in creating a league. But for it to happen, someone needed to take charge. Enter Vogel, who worked hard to recruit players and captains, and even captains the other Springfield-based team in the league. Vogel wanted to ensure there were USTA opportunities for players and to continue to grow the game in the area. She accomplished both with the development of the 3.0 league.
The league was initially orchestrated as a flex league last year with three teams competing. Hunt helmed one of the teams, Vogel the other and a third team was constructed in the Branson area. This year those three teams again competed, but the league took another step forward with district play and the opportunity for advancement to sectionals.
The assistant director at Cooper, who has since moved on to a different job, was stunned to hear Vogel, Hunt and USTA Missouri had pulled off the feat of a formal 3.0 league.
“I remember her telling me when we were in St. Louis, ‘There’s finally a 3.0 team from Springfield? You don’t know how long I’ve been working on that,’” Hunt said. “It really took Ann volunteering. If it wasn’t for Ann, I don’t think it would have ever gotten off the ground. … This will kind of be Ann Vogel’s legacy she leaves behind for USTA Missouri.”
The 3.0 league held its inaugural district championships at Cooper, which Hunt said her squad was surprised to capture. Hunt said she went into the season with no expectations and simply wanted her team to have fun, meet other players and not focus on wins and losses.
But when her team did finish the season as district champs, Hunt and the squad had a decision to make. Hunt asked the players to individually determine whether they wanted to make the trek to St. Louis and participate in the sectional competition. Hunt instructed her players not to share their opinion with others, and she would then tally who wanted to go and who wanted to bypass the opportunity.
“Unanimously, they all wanted to go,” Hunt said. “They put in the hard work. And, yes, they did want to go to sectionals. It was just a neat feeling.”
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