Missouri Valley / St. Louis

USTA St. Louis’s Ward Stars Capture National Championship

Josh Sellmeyer | October 24, 2022


About a year after a majority of its competitors learned the sport of tennis, the Ward Stars — a USTA St. Louis 2.5 women’s league team — went on a remarkable run to claim the national championship in Oklahoma City on September 29 through October 2.

 

The decisive match against a team from Puerto Rico came down to a third-set tiebreak on the No. 2 doubles court. The USTA St. Louis tandem of Lizzy Bauer and Kelley Love won the opening set before dropping the second set in a tiebreak. The duo raced out to a nice lead in the penultimate third set before holding off the Puerto Rican squad late to clinch the national title, 2-1, for the Ward Stars.

 

“It was so terrifying. It totally felt like it could have gone either way,” said co-captain Ellie Straub. “Me and the other three girls were sitting in the stands. We seriously felt like we were going to throw up. I never thought I would care that much about a tennis match. But we were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, it all comes down to this.’

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“And then we won and ran out on the court. It was the most indescribable feeling. It was almost like a sense of relief. We had come this far. We had come to Oklahoma City two times. We were in first place the past two days. And we finally won. It was very relieving and just really exciting.”

The Ward Stars — captained by childhood best friends Straub and Brooke Cusumano — had standout regular seasons in the fall of 2021 and this past spring. The group earned a USTA St. Louis District League Championship in early June before rolling through the competition at the USTA Missouri Valley League Section Championship in mid-August.

 

At sectionals in Oklahoma City, the Ward Stars didn’t drop a single court. The team went 18-1 in sets and snagged 108 of 145 games played. The sparkling performance there propelled the squad to the USTA League National Championship likewise in OKC, where the group gritted out two straight 2-1 results in the semis and finals to win it all.

“The first two days at nationals we just played a mix of four teams,” Straub said. “We didn’t lose a single court. So that was obviously really fun because we didn’t know what to expect going in. We got there and realized, ‘Oh, my gosh, I think we can win this thing.’ Also, it was just fun getting to know and play people from all over. We played against people from San Diego, Florida, New York, Puerto Rico.”

 

Straub said the Ward Stars struck up a friendship with the San Diego-based squad, who proceeded to attend the St. Louis team’s matches to root them on. That became especially beneficial in the championship match. The Puerto Rican team traveled in several fans and had a strong contingent of loud and passionate supporters. The San Diego team helped counteract that advantage.

 

The Ward Stars had plenty of support back home, though. Straub said when her team got in practice sessions at Frontenac Racquet Club, Woodsmill Tennis Club and Shaw Park, employees and players checked in to see how many weeks remained until nationals. Straub also credited Severine Huchet, USTA St. Louis district league coordinator for adults, for her guidance throughout the process.

 

“It was just a really fun experience because so many people in St. Louis were really rooting for us,” Straub said. “That just made it even more special. We had so many people behind us and texting us while we were at nationals. We’d get back in the car and would text different tennis people in St. Louis. It was fun to feel like it wasn’t just the six of us.”

 

After a strong start to nationals the opening two days, the Ward Stars locked horns with a team from Westchester, New York in the semifinals. The Ward Stars had defeated that squad 3-0 the first day and again got by them with a 2-1 victory in the semis. That set up the exhilarating championship matchup.

 

None of this seemed remotely possible when Straub and a majority of her teammates got their start in the sport at the beginning of the 2021 summer. Several players connected with Terry Ward — owner of Frontenac Racquet Club and Woodsmill Tennis Club — who invited the group to try out some doubles.

 

Ward later divided the group into two teams — the Stars and the Stripes — and signed each squad up to participate in a USTA fall league.

 

“I had no idea what nationals even was back then. I don’t think any of us did,” Straub said. “We’re like, ‘What is USTA?’ We had no idea. And then when we were No. 1 at the end of the fall season everyone was saying, ‘Oh, you’ll go to districts.’ I had no idea even what districts was. I’m like, ‘I wonder what that is. Who knows?’ I didn’t even hear about it until the next summer. I’m like, ‘Oh, I guess districts is now.’

 

“People kept saying, ‘You guys are so good. You guys could go all the way.’ I’m like, ‘We don’t even know what all the way means. This is just fun.’”

 

Straub said the group had a blast traveling together and bonding at both sectionals and nationals in OKC. At nationals the team went out to two nice dinners and got ice cream after one of them per the recommendation of players from the USTA Oklahoma team the Ward Stars competed against at sectionals. Like the San Diego squad, the Oklahoma team also watched the Ward Stars’ national championship final.

 

Straub said the nice Oklahoma City Tennis Center facility, the large number of spectators and the intensity and energy of the matches made her team’s nationals experience an awesome one to remember.

 

“It was just fun. It’s totally a different level than just regular season,” Straub said. “I’m proud of how much time we put in. You can see from when we started to where we are now how much we’ve really improved. It’s only been a little over a year, and we’re going to be playing 3.5 in the spring. Our first 2.5 match we were all so nervous.

 

“It’s fun looking back because I don’t really consider myself a competitive person. When we started I was like, ‘This will be fun.’ And now I’m like, ‘We have to win. We must win.’ I would have never guessed that. It’s so fun to have this competitive outlet so many people in St. Louis love. And that I’ve made a lot of friends playing with.”

 

To read a pair of previously published articles on the Ward Stars, click here and click here.

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