Idaho State women’s tennis lost all nine members from last year’s team, which included six seniors, forcing head coach Gretchen Maloney to start from scratch and recruit a new, all-freshman set of players.
Despite being one of the youngest teams in the nation, with each member still having three years of eligibility after this season, the Bengals are 5-3 in conference play, hold a 7-9 overall record in the spring season and have a better chance of qualifying for the conference tournament April 22 than the team has seen in over a decade. The last time the team qualified for the tournament was in 2004.
“Everywhere we go, they don’t seem like freshmen because they are very confident,” Maloney said. “They go out and get a lot of energy in the matches.”
ISU is unbeaten at home this season, but has a 3-6 record on the road. The Bengals have lost four different matches, two of which were in conference play, by one point.
“It’s hard to look at our schedule and say that we are a good team because we have a losing record,” Maloney said. “But I think we do have a strong team based on our schedule.”
The Bengals competed with the conference’s top teams, losing 4-3 to league-leading Northern Arizona on March 21 and suffering a 4-3 loss to Sacramento State, which holds a 7-3 conference record, on a controversial call.
“We were right there with Sac. State,” Maloney said. “We got reversed on a call. They’re right there with Northern Arizona. We were so close. Both those matches we were right there.”
ISU was picked to finish eighth in the conference this season, but currently sits in fifth and will play two of the last three matches at home.
“I almost think it’s easier with freshmen because they have no expectation,” Maloney said on coaching an all-freshman team. “They just go out and play. They don’t know any better, they don’t know that Northern Arizona is really good. I almost think it’s going to be harder next year.”
Maloney’s coaching style focuses on the positives. Each Friday, every team member says what they are grateful for in the team’s weekly Gratitude Friday and Maloney makes each player, win or lose, tell her one positive thing that happened in each match.
The team voted on team captains, Huibre-Mare Botes and Melissa Coburn, three weeks into the fall season.
Since the transition into the spring, the players have come together as a team, playing together instead of as individuals.
In the fall season losses were common, but as the individual season concluded, so did the routine losses.
“At the beginning, it was all for ourselves,” said Louise-Mare Botes. “Now, everything has changed. It has to be a good vibe, otherwise it won’t work.”
The increased success began to exceed what the team and individual players expected.
“We didn’t have any expectations. My goal was to win 50 percent of my matches and I’m already past that,” Botes said.
“We didn’t have the support,” said Hristina Cvetkovic on the fall season. “We were all playing for ourselves.”
The newfound success began to turn heads around the conference, especially in the case of opposing coaches.
“The coaches are really impressed at how they play as freshmen,” Maloney said, adding that she has heard comments from Utah State, Montana, Montana State and other schools around the region. “They go out and are really positive. They support each other.”
Maloney said the key to the team success was the million-dollar question, but Botes attributes it to the “never say die” attitude.
“Our fighting spirits,” she said. “Every match, nobody gives up. Everybody plays for the team, not themselves.”
This was not the case in the fall, particularly early on.
“First tournament was awful,” Cvetkovic said. “We were all scared and inexperienced. After that tournament we started playing better and more relaxed. Other coaches were surprised.”
Out of the nine players, two sets of two players knew each other before coming to Pocatello – the twins, Louise-Mare Botes and Huibre-Mare Botes, and Coburn and Poe, who are both from Texas.
The team started bonding over a Facebook chat group prior to the school year.
“We have had some challenges, but overall they are doing a great job of adapting,” Maloney said. “I think it’s easier as opposed to having two or three come in and adjust to the upperclassmen…They’re like a little sorority.”
Maloney says if the team stays together, she thinks they could win conference in the next few years, but says next season will be harder because there is a new expectation.
“Next year there might be pressure because everybody realizes that they were good last year,” she said. “Right now, it’s ‘Idaho State has all freshmen, how good can they be?’”